June 2021 Month Notes

Jul 3, 2021

Another set of month notes; here’s a link to those from May. Aside from having some interest to the 2-3 people who read them, I’ve found two good reasons to keep writing these:

  1. Writing can improve mental health, and reflective writing can make you better at your job (if that’s what you care about). By the way, this is an article from The Conversation which is now honestly my favourite news source.

  2. They’ve proved really useful simply as a record of activities, as I’ve needed to go back and work through notable events that I’ve spoken at or people I’ve spoken to in order to describe impact and complete KPIs.

ODI

Strategic work

Spending Review

As I mentioned last month, we’ve started our activity around making a case for ODI to continue to receive uncontested (ie not put out to tender) programmatic and core funding from DCMS. One of the big questions to answer is whether the UK government should continue to fund ODI in this way over the long term, or whether ODI should only receive funding through competitive bids like most everyone else.

It’s always difficult for me to separate my interest specifically in ODI thriving from my interest more generally to see the UK data ecosystem thriving, so it becomes impossible for me to tell whether any argument I put together is only persuasive to me because I’m already persuaded, and wouldn’t be to anyone with a more objective lens. But I’m obviously making the argument that government should continue to fund ODI.

ODI isn’t a public body (unlike, say, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation) but it was created by government nine years ago. There are a number of other organisations like this in the space, including in particular the Alan Turing Institute and the Digital Catapult. ODI, the Turing and the Digital Catapult are all Private Companies Limited By Guarantee which is a fairly common corporate form for non-profits. (Note: unlike those two other institutions, ODI has two people with significant control: Sir Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.)

Government sets up new organisations on an all-too-frequent basis. In part that’s because new organisations are great things for ministers to announce. In part, though, it’s because sometimes the challenges in a particular policy area speak to an institutional response. Independent institutions can do things the market isn’t doing or won’t do and that governments want to see done, but can’t do or directly shape themselves, like building networks; holding loss-making (but knowledge-disseminating) events; or creating, stewarding and publishing materials. They can be more risk-taking and responsive. They can be more trusted not to have ulterior political motivations behind their activities, nationally and internationally. I believe ODI has and continues to fill a role here specifically around data and data access, and particularly targeting improving business practices, in a way none of the other organisations in the space can do or does.

Even when an institutional approach to implementing government policy is a good idea, governments always want these organisations to be funded by someone other than government. Most such organisations are set targets to achieve a certain amount of match funding from other sources. At ODI (see accounts), of about £5.5m income in 2019, £2m was from InnovateUK (and wasn’t a core/unrestricted grant), £1.5 from other grants, and a bit over £2m from commercial work and membership/events income.

For interest and comparison, the Alan Turing Institute (see accounts), of £36m income in 2019/2020, only £2m came from a core grant from EPSRC: £13m came from universities, another £11m from other research council grants, just over £4m grants from philanthropic foundations, £3.5m from other grants, and a bit over £2m from commercial activities. For the Digital Catapult (see accounts), of about £18.5m income in 2019/2020, about £12.5m came from their core grant and the remainder was roughly equally split between £3m from other grants and £3m from commercial work.

I think (largely thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit that Gavin injected into the organisation during his time as CEO) we have done really well in finding ways to match fund the contribution we get from government, so that we’re not overly burdensome to the tax payer. That’s particularly so considering our scale and the fact that a lot of the government funding we’ve received, particularly in the last few years, has been restricted (which means we can only spend it in particular ways).

But we’ll see what DCMS and HMT think over the next few months…

Project work

I’ve spent a fair amount of time this month working with Mark Boyd to create materials in preparation and support for the World Health Organization’s Health Data Governance Summit. Mark is amazing to work with – full of energy and enthusiasm and really responsive to suggestions – so I’ve really enjoyed this project, but it has been just a little insane.

We were tasked with conducting research on three topics:

  • the worldwide health data landscape in general (which of course isn’t complex at all)
  • why health data is a public good (which is an easy thing to assert, but also has a fair degree of nuance around it)
  • what good health data governance looks like (again, a nice simple task)

(Sorry, I should have added a /s to the first and last of those to indicate my sarcasm!) And this had to be done in the space of a few weeks, including not only desk research but also interviewing a range of WHO stakeholders so they felt their voices were heard, and the production of reusable visualisations.

I’m not at all complaining about the project, I’d just like to have had six months to do it rather than six weeks! Particularly considering the time constraints, I’m really proud of the fantastic job we (but especially Mark) did creating three sets of materials, which are public here:

I think Mark did particularly well teasing out some of the subtleties and challenges (or “conversations” as he framed it) about seeing health data as a public good. The latter two pre-reads are particularly relevant outside the health sector too.

Interesting conversations

This month I’ve chatted with:

GPAI

As I’ve outlined previously, at GPAI, within the Data Governance Working Group, we have defined the two projects we’re going to be progressing over the next nine months or so:

  • Enabling data sharing for social benefit through data institutions which will look to do the fundamental work to support the creation of data institutions / data trusts (we’re being deliberately ambiguous at the moment) by GPAI.
  • Advancing research and practice on data justice: preliminary guidance for AI developers, policy makers and communities affected by the use of AI which aims to help practitioners and users to include considerations of equity and justice in terms of access to, and visibility and representation in, data used in the development of AI/ML systems.

In preparation for some consultants joining us to do research on the first of these, Neil Lawrence and Jessica Montgomery hosted and ran a workshop on “What is a Data Trust?” to try to get us to a definition that we can at least use consistently within GPAI, if not in the rest of the world.

The results of that should be published soon, but I think it’s notable that one of the features identified was that data trusts “Provide independent stewardship through an expert trustee who has a strong fiduciary responsibility to act in the interests of the trust’s members.” (my emphasis). This is notable to me, because it retains the idea that data trusts (unlike other forms of data institution) have fiduciaries rather than more collective/democratic forms of decision making (eg as in a data cooperative or union), and that they act in the interests of those contributing data into the data trust, rather than, for example, broader society. This – in particular the importance of fiduciary or delegated decision making about data – is pretty much where we got to with our definition of data trusts a couple of years ago.

This month, Jared and Jack in the ODI team created a useful pseudo-venn-diagram of the different types of “bottom-up” or “people-centric” data institutions, ie those where individual people are directly sharing data with some kind of organisation that then stewards and shares it on to third parties. They also wrote about the different variants, which is worth having a look at if you want to understand the nuances here.

Bottom-up data institutions

But the term “data trusts” still gets used in ways that don’t involve fiduciaries. This great recent piece in Nature about the need for collective decisions to be made about the use (for public benefit) of personal data generated within the private sector uses the term “public data trusts” to imply public stewardship, for public good, of data about the public, with collective or democratic decision making.

“Data trusts” isn’t the only piece of tricky/contested terminology in the data space at the moment. There are conflicting notions of what “data stewardship” means (in particular, is stewardship done by individuals or by organisations?). And about what people really mean when they say “data intermediaries” (my own view is that a data intermediary is any organisation sitting between original data collection and eventual data use; not all data intermediaries are data institutions, eg some are just brokers, and not all data institutions are data intermediaries, eg some are the originators of data).

At ODI, we invented the “data institutions” term in order to avoid distorting existing definitions of these other terms. But perhaps that’s just created another term to get confused about, I don’t know. Back when I was doing my PhD, a paper by Mildred Shaw and Brian Gaines was a cornerstone of my work; here’s the abstract:

One problem of eliciting knowledge from several experts is that experts may share only parts of their terminologies and conceptual systems. Experts may use the same term for different concepts, use different terms for the same concept, use the same term for the same concept, or use different terms and have different concepts. Moreover, clients who use an expert system have even less likelihood of sharing terms and concepts with the experts who produced it. This paper outlines a methodology for eliciting and recognizing such individual differences. It can be used to focus discussion between experts on those differences between them which require resolution, enabling them to classify them in terms of differing terminologies, levels of abstraction, disagreements, and so on. The methodology promotes the full exploration of the conceptual framework of a domain of expertise by encouraging experts to operate in a “brain-storming” mode as a group, using differing viewpoints to develop a rich framework. It reduces social pressures forcing an invalid consensus by providing objective analysis of separately elicited conceptual systems.

Unpacking how and why people are using the same term for different things, and different terms for the same thing, is actually a useful knowledge elicitation technique in itself. I wonder if we should try to do it more formally…

Other work

I wrote last month about the op-ed I wrote on the future of data protection regulation in the UK post-Brexit; that eventually got published in the FT and it was quite good that it was delayed because it meant we could add a reference to the TIGRR report which is at least explicit about wanting to get rid of GDPR. I got called out a bit (in private, and fairly) about implying that GDPR is a perfect gold standard, which of course it isn’t. But most people I’ve spoken to seem to agree with the premise that we should be aiming for a high-trust future rather than a race to the bottom.

I attended three advisory groups/boards this month:

  • The GOV.UK Advisory Board, where I was very sad to learn of Jen Allum’s departure for new opportunities in the US.
  • The Advisory Board for InnovateUK’s Next Generation Services Innovation Strategy Challenge Fund
  • GDS’s Digital Identity Programme’s Privacy and Inclusion Forum – I can’t find a good link for more information about this, aside from GDS’s strategy, but think there should be more publicly available about this soon. This was just an initial meeting to outline the goals of the programme. It’s good that they’re recognising the need to engage around privacy and inclusion early on in the process.
  • DCMS’s National Data Strategy Forum. This was the first meeting, and mostly focused on asking the forum members what we would like the forum to do.

I spoke at:

  • The 7th Annual Meeting of the OECD Expert Group on Open Government Data, in a panel on “Open government data and public services: Facilitating people’s journey throughout the crisis”
  • CogX, in a session called “What is Good Data?”. “Good” is such a loaded term, so I made the distinction between data that is good from the perspective of a data scientist (high quality, interesting, granular etc), data that is being used for good purposes (eg towards SDGs, including economic growth / innovation), and data that is good from an ethical / justice perspective, with participation of those that it is about and used by communities.
  • A Technical Legal Workshop organised by Natalie Byrom at The Legal Education Foundation, on “Reforming the law around the use of automated and assisted decision making by public bodies”, intended to influence the Law Commission’s plans for future work around algorithmic decision making. Lilian Edwards, Rebecca Williams and Reuben Binns put together an amazing legal briefing for this event which I barely scratched the surface of and while I can wave my hands fairly effectively to lay audiences on the law around data, I was pretty intimidated by the legal minds in the (virtual) room.
  • VivaTech 2021, which was a high production hybrid event, where I spoke about privacy and trust, and commented on the ambitions of GaiaX.
  • The G20 Multi-stakeholder Forum on “Digital Transformation in Production for Sustainable Growth” where I spoke on a panel about “Enhancing data access for mSMEs”

I also attended a private roundtable organised by the Institute for Government on “How to implement a data strategy”, which really surfaced a lot of the challenges (without, perhaps, identifying potential approaches to tackling them). The main points I made were about the need for a National Data Strategy to be implemented across multiple bodies, and the implications that has for what a central(ish) team can do.

I was interviewed by the FT for a piece on data use in healthcare, which then wasn’t used.

I was also interviewed by Creative Commons for a position on their Board. This was a more rigorous selection process that I’ve been used to for other Boards (which is no bad thing!) and I’m yet to hear back about whether I’ve been successful. It’s an exciting time for Creative Commons as it approaches its 20th anniversary, so I hope I can be part of that.

Personal

Work life

Free Fridays

This month is the first month where I’ve had Fridays as non-working days. This hasn’t exactly worked out as I thought it would because, of the four Fridays involved, two of them were ones where the kids were home from school so felt more like holidays than pseudo-working days. The others were taken up by a lot of life admin (on which a bit more below). But I did manage to work through my ideas about a book to write.

As I flagged last time, my first idea is a book vaguely titled “Data Strategy: A guide for organisational leaders in an interconnected world”, in which I want to really highlight how data strategy meets organisational strategy and how you can use data to change others’ behaviours as well as inform your own decisions as an organisation. Rough outline so far looks like:

  • Introduction
  • Part one: Understanding context
    1. Do you need a data strategy?
    2. What is data anyway?
    3. What do we do with data?
    4. How do technologies help?
    5. What do people think?
    6. What does the law say?
    7. How does data work in a wider ecosystem?
    8. What does your organisation think?
  • Part two: Prioritising effort
    1. Strategic decision making
    2. Operational efficiency
    3. Customers and partners
    4. Transparency
    5. Innovation
  • Part three: Implementing change
    1. Collaboration and communication
    2. Open data
    3. Portable data
    4. Sensitive data
    5. Equipping change
    6. Motivating change
  • Conclusion

But I also had another idea for a book with a working title of “Together data: Why our data is about us all, and what we should do about it”. Vague outline looks like:

  • Introduction
  • Part one: understanding rights and interests in data
    1. Personal data rights
    2. Intellectual property rights
    3. Public and state rights
    4. Indigenous data sovereignty
    5. Group and collective interests
    6. Data ownership
    7. Data commons
  • Part two: foundations of consent and participation
    1. Participation levels
    2. Individual consent and its challenges
    3. Personal data stores
    4. Data trusts
    5. Public and patient participation
    6. Data collaboratives and commons
  • Part three: implementing participatory data
    1. Understanding conflicting interests
    2. Embedding accountability
    3. Listening to people
    4. Learning data governance
    5. Making the case
  • Conclusion

To be honest, this is the one that I’m most passionate about. I’d love, personally, to make the case for rejecting the current narrative around data that paints individual informed consent as the best/only way of making decisions about what data gets collected/used/shared (which is as ridiculous as giving individuals primary responsibility to make decisions about when to wear masks, imho). I’d like to build on my recent blogs on community consent and on individual and collective rights in data, weave in the thinking being done by scholars like Jathan Sadowski, Salomé Viljoen & Meredith Whittaker (see their recent piece in Nature) as well as Linnet Taylor and others, and make it practical for policymakers and businesses.

Thoughts and suggestions still welcome.

Home life

I spent several hours on one of my Free Fridays working through what it will take to officially change the name of my youngest child, who is non-binary. Action on this was motivated by the fact that, as they were doing their mocks, they were listed in exam listings, and their places labelled, with their old name, which triggers their gender dysphoria and adds an extra level of stress on what’s already a stressful time (see more on this below, too).

Changing a child’s official name is a much more complex process than you’d think or hope, and hard to understand. The relevant forms are all here, which you have to complete and send in to be registered at the Royal Courts of Justice. The difficulty is in understanding what forms need to be completed by whom. There are three sets:

  1. People with parental responsibility have to complete an affidavit of best interest to confirm that they’re OK with the child’s change of name. These need to then be sworn in front of a Commissioner for Oaths / Solicitor (which solicitors will do for £5 each).

  2. People with parental responsibility have to complete the deed poll itself, and sign it in front of two witnesses. There don’t appear to be any constraints on who those witnesses are.

  3. Someone who is (a) not a relative, (b) a British citizen, (c) a home owner, and (d) familiar with both parents and child needs to complete a statutory declaration for a deed poll of a minor and have it witnessed by a Commissioner for Oaths / Solicitor, alongside getting two exhibits – the deed poll and the child’s birth certificate – validated in some way.

Then all these forms have to be sent off to the Royal Courts of Justice, alongside a form about publishing information about the change in the Gazette, and about £40 to pay for their administration.

It is interesting to see both how complex the process is and how much it relies on people swearing oaths (in front of people who don’t know them) as a means of determining the truth.

Video games we’ve been playing:

  • I played Pikuniku which is a very simple little puzzle/exploration game; a few annoying boss fights that you will likely have to play repeatedly to get through, but a fun and whacky story.

  • I watched my eldest play The Wild At Heart which is an exploration/puzzle game I’d certainly recommend. It has an interesting mechanic where you have a swarm of “Spritelings” with different strengths/weaknesses that you grow and then basically throw at enemies and puzzles to interact with the world.

  • We’ve been playing a fair amount of Griftlands which is a deck-building / role-playing game. I really like how it uses cards to simulate verbal sparring as well as physical battles.

  • I played Rain on your Parade which is a silly puzzle game a bit like Donut County, where you play a cloud who can rain and later snow on people, rain different substances, do lightning zaps and move things around with hurricanes. There are a number of fun “themed” levels of which my favourite was leading a bunch of zombies around a city.

  • I played most of Minute of Islands which is a fairly linear exploration/puzzle game with a very warped/creepy feel which I enjoyed. I’m overall less enamoured of the gameplay though (overall just a bit too linear) and I gave up when I hit a particular movement/timing-based puzzle that I just couldn’t get through on multiple tries.

We started actually playing Good Society, and had a really good time just letting the characters interact and making up parts of the story. We’ve had a few weeks of downtime, while real life has intervened, during which we’ve been writing in-character letters, which I’ve really enjoyed.

TV we’ve been watching:

  • Star Trek Discovery – now up to date.
  • Lupin – watched Series 2.
  • Sweet Tooth – the devastating impact of a pandemic on society was a little close for comfort, but recommended.
  • Loki – a number of great things coming together here, in particular Owen Wilson, whom I would watch in anything, and a fantastic retro-futuristic set design; waiting to see how the story plays out
  • The Irregulars – We enjoyed this series and the complexity of the characters and relationships.
  • Law & Order – now just started series 12. So sad that Adam Schiff is gone.

Family film watching:

Mental health

June saw mocks for both my kids. My youngest found this particularly difficult because their neurodivergence means they find sitting in a room filled with small sounds from lots of other people really difficult to cope with. They explained this to me and I tweeted about it in a thread that seemed to resonate with other neurodivergent people (not just those with autism).

The mocks were also challenging because of their gender dysphoria. When going into exam rooms (and assemblies in general, I later learned), the kids in their school are asked to line up in two lines on each side of the corridor – girls on one side and boys on the other – before alternating in as they go into the room. This is supposed to prevent people who know each other from sitting next to each other and being inclined to chat, apparently. But which line should a non-binary student go in? What about trans students who aren’t yet out?

This hits hard because unlike when someone misgenders you (a micro-inequity you can choose to object to or shrug off), in this situation you are forced to self-identify as either male or female. It is like a 1984-inspired brainwashing technique where you have to say something that you don’t believe is true, repeatedly, day after day, creating cognitive dissonance and psychological stress.

Frankly, no wonder non-binary and trans students have particular mental health issues.

I wrote to the school about this, (and about a careers worksheet that asks whether men or women typically do particular careers) and they are sympathetic with the problem and the experience, but like other embedded practices that assume binary gender (cf PE classes), it will require some imagination on their part to change.

May 2021 Month Notes

Jun 11, 2021

Welcome to another set of (slightly delayed) month notes! Here’s my previous month notes from April if you want the “story so far”.

ODI

Strategic work

Writing month notes always makes me think both how much I do, and how little I achieve. I’m usually surprised by how much I’ve done – the number of things I’ve been involved with, the number of conversations I’ve had and people I have learned from and/or touched in my own way. But I also always have mixed feelings about how much I’ve achieved: things just seem to move more slowly than I expect them to, and by the time something is actually done or has an impact, it feels somehow smaller or harder to recognise, because it is the culmination of something that has taken much longer. It’s rare that I feel I’ve achieved something meaningful within the space of a single month.

During May I wrote a much longer reflection: a final report for Luminate on the period during which ODI received its previous grant, the three years 2018-2020, bracketed by the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Covid-19 pandemic. It was interesting reflecting on how the narrative and interests of the ODI (and the wider data community) have changed over that time. I brought out the growing tension and polarised thinking between openness and trustworthiness; the importance of and interest in data institutions; and, with Olivier’s help, the attraction and limitations of data ethics (something explored in the report we commissioned from Consequential on the next generation of data ethics tools).

Reflecting on how we work, I highlighted the programmatic approach we’ve started using. I also explored some of the things that we’ve found particularly impactful: working on problems that matter, oriented around the SDGs; developing practical advocacy tools and the training and consulting support offers that help organisations embed them in their practice; using stimulus funds to create peer networks, provide financial and non-financial support to projects of interest, and to learn from practical experience. I also highlighted our approach to working with commercial businesses, partnering with other organisations to achieve scale and complement our expertise, and our focus on communications that enables us to reach other audiences. Finally, I talked about how we are approaching improving our diversity, equity and inclusion as an organisation.

And guess what, even with a three year span, I still felt surprised by how much we’d done and have mixed feelings about what we’ve achieved! Perhaps it’s just in my nature to never be satisfied at work (in fact, someone said more or less that to me this month).

Diversity, equity and inclusion

I’ve written over the past couple of months about how I’ve been trying to push forward our work on a diversity census for the organisation. This month these got passed up to the Board and Ethics Committee to look at, and make the balancing decisions between the utility of collecting such data and the risks posed by doing so.

To help inform the discussion, I went through each of the characteristics that we’d identified as potential things we could measure, and classified them using a RAG (red/amber/green) rating against each of the following properties:

  • special category data – these require particular scrutiny; some characteristics are clearly so, others are proxies or related to special category data (eg data about neurodivergence could be seen as health data) and some unrelated
  • properties to do with the purpose to which the data might be put:
    • protected characteristics – those where there are legal obligations and we therefore should keep an eye on
    • hiring – those where we might conceivably take positive action in our hiring practice (eg in choosing where to advertise, or mandating diversity in our shortlisting) to improve our diversity
    • policies – those where the diversity of the team might influence our internal policies or practices
    • recognition – those where asking questions about these characteristics might make people feel seen, recognised and welcomed for who they are
  • properties to do with the harmful impacts collecting the data might have:
    • sensitive – those where people might be concerned about their particular response becoming widely known
    • trigger – those where asking the question might trigger traumatic memories or feelings (eg asking about someone’s parents, when perhaps they are ill or recently deceased)
    • UK bias – those where the question might make people not from the UK feel excluded because they contain assumptions about cultural context or make those from outside the UK feel “other”
    • participation – those where it’s likely that people are already commonly known to have particular characteristics, so not seeing them present in the reported answers might reveal they didn’t complete the diversity census

We also ran another survey of the team, to pick apart how they felt about questions being included vs whether they would personally answer them, the vast majority of which was positive (but of course, what the majority thinks is not necessarily the point in DE&I activities). I’m still hopeful that I’ll be able to share more about the entire process, including the aspects that are really challenging in collecting this kind of sensitive, personal data, at some point in the future. It isn’t straight-forward, or comfortable.

If you’re interested in DEI efforts within organisations, I found this thread and particularly this tweet thought-provoking.

Spending Review

If you are good at reading between the lines, you’ll have intuited from the government’s response to the response to the National Data Strategy consultation and the announcement of ODI’s programmes of work that ODI again secured government funding for its work, as part of the 2021/22 Spending Review. Since its initial £10m grant ended, the ODI has received about a third of its income over the last four years through a R&D programme grant from InnovateUK. Our new grant comes direct from DCMS, as part of its programme of work to implement the National Data Strategy.

One of my jobs is making a strong case for ODI to continue to receive government funding in the next Spending Review. In previous years, a lot of this has fallen to me, but this year I’m trying to empower the programme leads to take more ownership over their parts of ODI’s proposal, and Louise, our MD, on the bits about the general development of ODI. So, with the capable support of Kim, a new delivery manager at ODI, I’ve been spending time this month setting up an internal project to support our SR bid and engagement, with planning and milestones and everything.

Project work

After a quiet month last month, I’ve been involved in a number of projects this month:

  • I was one of the judges for the Microsoft Education Challenge
  • I’ve been supporting our work exploring challenges faced by data institutions in low- and middle-income countries for the World Bank
  • I was also involved in another piece of work with the World Bank on business data sharing in SE Asia
  • I’ve been helping Milly and Deb to shape some public policy work to support our data assurance programme, in particular to make the case for due diligence around the collection, use and sharing of data to be a part of regular corporate audits
  • I’ve also been supporting Milly and Gavin to scope a project to explore the UK data policy landscape
  • We managed to win a piece of work with the World Health Organisation with a very quick turnaround, to support a conference on health data governance that they’re planning at the end of June
  • I’ve had great fun working with Joe and Jack on the next stage of a data institutions register that they’ve been working on for a while

Interesting conversations

This month I’ve chatted with:

Not included in the above, to protect identities, were four conversations I had with different people (outside ODI) who were all in the middle of difficult life choices about their careers and wanted some advice / a listening ear, which I was very glad to provide.

I was interviewed as part of research by:

Finally, Lisa Allen joined us at ODI this month! She’s already making her mark in a wonderfully proactive way, and has brought great insight into where things are at for those implementing data strategies inside government.

GPAI

At GPAI, within the Data Governance Working Group, we have defined our two projects:

  • Enabling data sharing for social benefit through data institutions which will look to do the fundamental work to support the creation of data institutions / data trusts (we’re being deliberately ambiguous at the moment) by GPAI.
  • Advancing research and practice on data justice: preliminary guidance for AI developers, policy makers and communities affected by the use of AI which aims to help practitioners and users to include considerations of equity and justice in terms of access to, and visibility and representation in, data used in the development of AI/ML systems.

I’m honestly bowled over by the amount of commitment and expertise within the group and really excited about being able to take these pieces of work forward. We only have a little budget, but raising the international profile for these pieces of work feels important.

We’re currently seeking consultants to help us deliver this work, so please, if you’re interested and it suits you, take a look at the terms of reference for the data justice and data trusts projects, and please share these with others you think might be interested. Tweet thread is here if the best way to do that is to retweet it.

We’ve also gathered volunteers in the group to support work being led by other Working Groups, specifically around:

  • Climate action, led by the Responsible AI Working Group
  • Drug discovery, co-led by the Pandemic Response and Responsible AI Working Groups
  • Pressing new IP issues, led by the Innovation and Commercialisation Working Group
  • Social media, led by the Responsible AI Working Group

Other work

The beginning of May saw a couple of data-relevant government announcements. I had fun working with Milly and the team to craft Twitter threads responding to the Queen’s Speech and to the National Data Strategy consultation response response. It was particularly gratifying to realise how many of the varied topics within the Queen’s Speech we had previous work on that we could point to.

I wrote half an op-ed on the future of data protection regulation in the UK post-Brexit and how we should position ourselves as a trustworthy data harbour rather than a dodgy Cayman Islands style data haven. Then one of the Allegory comms team who we work with chatted to me about it, rewrote it, and made it ten times punchier and more readable. I used to think I was good at writing. Anyway, it was still reflecting my original ideas and I did do a final pass to make a few corrections and add some nuance, so I guess I can claim some credit for the result. Hasn’t been published yet, but if you’re interested to read drop me a line and I’ll share it with you (we might publish it as a blog if it doesn’t get picked up anywhere else, I guess).

I chaired a roundtable for DCMS on data intermediaries and the kind of interventions that government needs to make to enable them (or the right types of them) to flourish. Most of the people at the roundtable were people I know well so I felt very comfortable doing it, but I do just generally enjoy chairing things. The only difficulty is when I have strong opinions that I feel I shouldn’t express because of the role I’m playing; I need to find better ways to navigate that.

I attended three advisory groups/boards this month:

I spoke at:

  • the Data4Good Festival about data sharing and stewardship in the social sector; slides are here and there should be a blog coming soon. My basic argument was that lots of data infrastructure we need will end up being supported by the social sector, so we need to get better at recognising and supporting it.
  • a panel at Data and the Future of Financial Services on ESG data
  • a Heads of Data Strategy group (an informal group of heads of data strategy in UK public sector organisations) meetup, to talk about data institutions – time was too short!

I also chaired half a day at the Digital Government Virtual Summit, which included asking questions of Minister Julia Lopez and chairing two panels: one on government’s data transformation, and one on digital identity. It was not a particularly easy experience, in part due to the particular technology choice and malfunctions throughout the morning, but it was fun chatting with Sue Bateman and Ollie Buckley, who have been working on data in government for about as long as I have, about this next phase.

I was also interviewed for a Wired piece about Citymapper, and what the future might hold for it. As usual a lot of the discussion was cut for the piece, but I tried to make points about the utility of the kind of data Citymapper captures from commuters for local government decision makers, alongside the issues they (and other similar services) might encounter using location data in this way.

Thoughts I had

I tweeted about a study looking at the number of broken links in New York Times articles: up to 72% of links in articles from 1998. Early hypertext systems had links that couldn’t break: if a page disappeared it invalidated those pages that linked to it. This works fine – indeed well, as you get alerted to and can correct broken links – for self-contained hypertext systems such as a book. But for the World Wide Web to flourish, the responsibility for maintaining it had to be distributed and links had to be breakable.

Tim wrote that Cool URIs don’t change in 1998 (is that really 23 years ago? god, I feel old). But of course they do, because so many are technology-bound and information-architecture bound and each generation of webmasters (as if we have webmasters any more) will want to change one or the other or both. (This happened on the ODI website when it was redesigned, for example – some of the old content never got moved over to the new system.)

The web is designed to enable growth and change over time, and – like our brains – it is designed to forget. It could have been designed differently. The Memento project shows how HTTP headers can enable browsers to indicate the date and time of the content of the page (such as when a newspaper article was written), and request the content of linked pages-at-a-particular-time. Servers can redirect historic links to archives maintained by themselves, or the internet archive, or more specialised ones.

Web archives are certainly important. We surely want future historians to be able to understand our lives and how we got to where they are, when they are, rather than this being another dark ages in the historical record.

But is it a problem that historic links don’t work automatically? That you might have to go searching for the reference document in an archive? That an archive might not have been made in the first place?

I think it depends on the link, and the likelihood that a link will be important depends on the nature of the linked page. There are links that simply provide colour or further information in case of interest. There are links to content that make it far easier to understand the context of a page you’re looking at (such as those to a video game that is the subject of a review). And there are links where the linked page provides essential material without which the full import of the linking page cannot be understood, a good example of this being when standards and referenced from legislation.

Having cool URIs that don’t change, and stewards that think about and honour the fact that others may be linking to their content as essential reference points, is really important for data and information infrastructure. It’s why we put so much thought into the design of legislation URLs for legislation.gov.uk, to make them independent of any technology choices that might be made in the future.

But for the rest? The web is a collaborative enterprise that we are building and evolving together constantly. It reminds me of Ellen’s recent video where she questions so eloquently our approach to data and AI, including how we use industrial metaphors for what we do with data (extraction, refinement) rather than natural ones (burrowing, foraging). How would our attitude to link rot change if we saw the web not as an engineered thing we have built, but as a forest we are tending? Missing pages not as threats to structural integrity, but as part of the natural process of renewal?

I think this is why I find it beautiful that so many links from old New York Times articles no longer work. Those articles record the shape of a memory of the past, like ivy wrapped around a dead tree, and one day they too will fade. But that’s OK, there’ll be plenty of new growth. We can let them go.

Changing data narratives

As part of reflecting on the National Data Strategy, I revisited the 2012 Open Data White Paper from Cabinet Office that laid out a government-wide mandate to “put data and transparency at the heart of government”. Looking back at it now, there are many familiar themes. Francis Maude and the Coalition government at the time wanted to “inspire innovation and enterprise that spurs social and economic growth”. It wanted to “ensure public services are more personalised and efficient”. Some things don’t change.

But what struck me was how the Open Data White Paper and the National Data Strategy were almost inverses of each other in how they think about achieving these goals.

The 2012 Open Data White Paper over-emphasised the role of the public sector as a supplier of data for others to consume, and under-emphasised the importance of data sharing from other sectors – including the private sector – and the use of data by government itself. By contrast, the National Data Strategy focuses on getting data shared better in the wider economy (Mission One), and on government’s own use of data (Mission Three) but misses the importance of government’s role as a steward of public data.

I am troubled by this, particularly given that the gap between these two missions is mirrored by a gap in the responsibility to fulfil them, falling as it does between the remit of DCMS and the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) in Cabinet Office. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that data held by the public sector, that would be useful in the wider economy, is made as open as possible?

Another thing that is worrying me at the moment (as I mentioned above) is the growing polarisation in the UK between the narrative of “data as a public good” and “data as a privacy threat”. Earlier in the year, we saw Oliver Dowden saying in the FT (my emphasis):

I want to set a bold new approach that capitalises on all we’ve learnt during the pandemic, which forced us to share data quickly, efficiently and responsibly for the public good. It is one that no longer sees data as a threat, but as the great opportunity of our time.

and of course Cummings’ worship of data scientists (tw/ Daily Mail). This is a narrative that emphasises the good and opportunities that can come from the use of data. I’m scheduled to speak on a panel at CogX with Sam Gilbert, author of Good Data, which also makes this case, including about uses of data for private-interest purposes (that bring public benefit through creating jobs, economic growth and innovation).

And then we see the film People You May Know and the noise around the use of data from GPs for research (GPDPR), both of which emphasise harms and risks about the collection, use and sharing of data.

Both sides paint pictures of worlds that could be, whether utopias to provoke hopes or dystopias to provoke fears; whether about miraculous predictions granted through data science or about the identification, targeting and detention of citizens by tech firms.

I’ve spent many years trying to find a nuanced path between these two extremes that does not trade public good for personal privacy, or vice versa, but achieves both. The debate seems to me to increasingly lack this nuance, even though it’s in the grey areas that most need the attention. This concerns me for two reasons.

First, I would really like the public and political dialogue about data to be more informed and based in reality. I was particularly perturbed by People You May Know in this regard because I felt that by creating a fictional world that was close to the real one, it blurred the boundaries between the two. I don’t know how viewers are supposed to tell which bits are real things happening now and which are made up. My sense is that many will assume that some of the parts that were fiction are actually fact. Isn’t this the essence of disinformation?

Second, I am worried that as the debate becomes more polarised, the concerns that the other side raise, or claims they make, become seen as misrepresentation and exaggeration. I’m particularly concerned, as the debates become more shrill, about pro-good-data people dismissing the concerns of pro-privacy-people as paranoia. Conspiracy theory. Project fear. I am worried that a perception of panic-mongering will further entrench whatever view there is inside government that privacy is passé, rather than undermining it. As psychologists have found, “heated debates only convince the already converted, and further entrench the opposition”.

But these are typical “insider” concerns. “Can’t we all be reasonable?” “Don’t rock the boat.” Logically, I recognise that I have a bias to a different style, approach and theory of change. Logically, I also believe strong “outsider” voices are essential for keeping issues on the agenda, and I can see what happens when we lack them (as we have for a few years in the open data space). So I have very mixed feelings and thoughts, but can’t deny there is this niggle in the back of my head, and in my gut, which I have learned not to ignore, that the heat in the current debate might be making things worse rather than better.

Personal

Work life

Working from home

As pressure increases to return to the office, I’ve been thinking about the particular challenges of hybrid working at the organisation level. It feels to me that in any working pattern, there are sets of individual needs, role needs, team needs, organisational needs, and societal needs at play, and we (all of us, I’m not particularly talking about ODI) have now a chance to re-examine and re-set the balance between those needs, and how we choose to meet them, if we choose to take it.

Individuals have different needs due to their lives, personalities, and preferences, and these also change over time, as demands on them change and emergencies come up, or as their confidence and competence grows around their work. Different roles involve different levels and types of interaction with other people and with the physical office space. Different teams prefer to work with autonomy, or in pairs, or in groups. Different organisations have more or less need for physical presences for visitors or events, and different office atmospheres that they want to project or cultures they want to preserve. And different regions and societies have different patterns for the physical distribution of office space and the shops that support them.

I can’t help feeling it would be good to take some time to unpack these different needs, and apply some imagination in working out whether some needs that individual needs have been subservient to might be satisfied in different ways. We’ve seen that teams can work remotely, just as they can work in person; which works better for which tasks, and what tools can help? We’ve seen that some people just can’t work from home, not because of their job but because of their living situation or personality, but they might equally dislike their commute and a half-empty office; perhaps they can find nearby flexible, creative, buzzing, shared offices to work in instead?

I have a feeling that without proactive exploration of this space, we will drift back to what we were used to, and that will be a missed opportunity.

Free Fridays

I’m no longer going to be working (as such) on Fridays, from the beginning of June. So I spent some time during May working out what I’ll do with the extra flexible day each week. Some life admin, which I never feel like doing and is sometimes hard to do at the weekend, certainly. But I also want to use them to do the two things I don’t get enough time for: writing, and coding. So my plan is to spend roughly half each Friday writing a book, and half doing some kind of data analysis and visualisation, or similar.

The book I’ve been thinking about is to get down on the page a lot of what I’ve learned over the last fifteen years about data strategy, specifically data strategy that incorporates an understanding of and influence on the wider data ecosystem that an organisation plays a part in. I’m going to try to get a rough outline together by the end of June. If there’s something particular you’d like me to write about, do let me know.

On the coding / analysis / visualisation side, I’m less certain about where to focus. Maybe just something interesting from the week’s news. Maybe some of the economic statistics that I want to get my head around. We’ll see. Suggestions welcome!

Home life

It was my birthday at the end of May, and with some restrictions lifted and Covid-19 rates low, we hired a car and visited my family in Cambridge on the final Sunday. It was a wonderful day. The weather was perfect – sunny but not too hot. We had a delicious vegan picnic. And I had a lovely long chat with my mum. Cambridge itself was packed, but we were outside the whole time so felt safe. We visited the college that my eldest will be applying to; I’m still choosing to live in denial that she will ever leave home though.

The other brilliant thing over the weekend was that my autistic youngest child was in one of their chatty states. We went for a walk on the Saturday to some nearby National Trust land that we hadn’t previously visited, and they loved it, as did my partner who rarely gets to see and interact with them when they’re like that. Seeing them together made me very happy.

Video games we’ve been playing:

  • My eldest and I finished off It Takes Two – a cooperative puzzle/adventure game where you play two doll versions of divorcing parents. We loved the balance of the gameplay, the imagination of the setting, and the story worked too. One horrific moment where we had to dismember a stuffed elephant will live with us a long time…

  • I played a bit of The Long Dark – a pretty tough survival game that might be easier to play on a PC than on a console. I enjoyed the realistic grind, and how the threats are mostly about finding warmth, food and medicine, but I haven’t gone back to it.

  • Andrew recommended Buildings Have Feelings Too! which I did enjoy. You have to gradually build up different neighbourhoods based on what buildings, and the businesses or homes they house, need. It’s challenging and sometimes panic-inducing, when you have to deal with the ripple effects of the collapse of a business, but a great twist on city-management games.

We had our first session of the role playing game Good Society, where we created the main characters, worked out their backstories, the relationships between them and some secondary characters to make their lives difficult. I’m so happy getting to roleplay again, with both this and our ongoing game of Masks. I’m always tired coming into it, but two hours of collective creativity and laughter perk me right up.

TV we’ve been watching:

  • The Alienist – I remember really enjoying the original book when I read it (checks dates) 25 years ago, but almost nothing of the plot! These were good watching.
  • Star Trek Discovery – we’d stopped watching part way through Season Two so picked it up again from there. Definitely watchable, but we do get a bit frustrated that the crew seem to frequently spend precious minutes on deep and meaningful conversations in the middle of emergency situations.
  • The Politician – my eldest and I started watching this on the odd evenings when my partner is busy doing other things, so we’re not making very rapid progress through it, but I’ve enjoyed what we’ve seen.
  • Law & Order – now part way through season 8. We are starting to try to predict which piece of evidence will be suppressed to create drama during the courtroom portion of the show.

Family film watching:

  • Labyrinth for the nth time. “It’s so stimulating being your hat!”
  • The Mole Agent has a premise that did not particularly appeal to me – a documentary about a private investigator hiring an elderly man to go undercover in a nursing home in Chile – but it was excellent. Funny, sad and touching. Highly recommended.
  • The Mitchells vs the Machines – US animated family fare, with some nice touches and digs at big tech. I think I overall preferred The Croods.

Mental health

My youngest has settled into what seems to be a relatively stable pattern of going to school for the full school day, but not always attending every class if their anxiety is too high. (When they don’t, they go to a specific area where they can do work set by their class teacher, or any other work that they feel like.) They have been spending some of this time learning – because they want to – A level maths and A level politics materials, which they then tell me about in great detail and with huge joy when we relax in the evening. The school is sending me letters with concerns about their attendance, which I’m ignoring.

April 2021 Month Notes

May 3, 2021

It doesn’t seem at all long since my March month notes, I think because I have had a bunch of holiday this month, taking advantage of the post-March-crunch lull.

ODI

Strategic work

Assurance

We have had a few internal conversations this month about the role ODI can, should and wants to play around certification of people, organisations and things (such as datasets), and the risks of those roles. We believe that data assurance is important because it would help data to flow more appropriately:

  • organisations could be more confident sharing data they held with other organisations if they knew those organisations would use it appropriately and handle it ethically
  • organisations could be more confident reusing data from other organisations if they knew it was of a useful quality, collected ethically and suitably processed

We know from our research that organisations say they want this kind of assurance to be available, both as users of that assurance (ie to help reduce the costs of their due diligence processes around prospective sources or reusers of data) and as recipients of it (ie to help demonstrate their trustworthiness to prospective partners, clients or providers).

The problem is that, understandably, the kind of assurance that is meaningful, and that organisations want, is the kind that is hardest – and riskiest – to provide. Providing assurance around something doesn’t just mean taking on work to assess it, but also taking on some liability around that assessment being correct. For example, organisations would like to know that a dataset is suitable for them to reuse, or that the reuse to which some data is put will not end up being problematic. If they use the results of an assessment to make a decision that ends up damaging them (legally, financially or reputationally), the assurance provider has to bear some of the blame, and some of the costs.

There is also a risk that the kind of assurance that is provided is interpreted as something different, perhaps because of genuine confusion but also because of wishful thinking. We experienced this with the Open Data Certificates, which I pushed at ODI a number of years ago. Open Data Certificates were self-assessments of the quality of open data publication, but many perceived them – or wanted them to be – ODI assessments of the quality of open datasets themselves.

I don’t think we’re close to working out any red lines about what we do yet, but I suspect that, almost by definition, the market need around assurance will require the provider of that assurance to take on risk – reputationally if nothing else – which means a fairly large part of the planning around these products will need to be about how to mitigate and manage it.

KPIs

We made the final touches to the KPIs that we’ll be using for each of ODI’s new programmes of work over the next few years. One thing that I think was useful coming out of them was identifying a range of ways to move from counting outputs to having some kind of measure of uptake and impact from those outputs. These included:

  • looking at reach or engagement with the outputs (eg how many times they were read)
  • counting the number of times the outputs are referenced or quoted (to our knowledge)
  • counting testimonials or case studies about the impact of the outputs
  • counting the outputs, but only if they satisfy a quality measure for take up (that might include all of the above)

We’ll see how our efforts to craft good KPIs survive over the next year. If experience – both at ODI and elsewhere – is anything to go by, we’ll want to revisit them during the year as they end up being hard to measure; turn out to drive unwanted behaviours; or are reached too easily or impossible to achieve.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

I talked last month about the diversity census that I’ve been trying to facilitate within ODI. I am a strong believer in the principle of “nothing about us without us”, particularly when it comes to data collection and use, so my goal this month was to get more input, from the wider ODI team who will be asked to complete it, about the content of the census.

As well as encouraging comments on the doc that contains details of the design of the diversity census, I created a form to enable higher level and anonymous comments, and to get a quantitative assessment about which types of questions to include. With the latter I asked “Which of these characteristics do you think the census should ask about to help us understand the ODI’s diversity?”, listed things like gender, age, ethnicity and so on, and asked people to indicate “definitely include” / “no opinion” / “definitely do not include” for each one. I also noted that all the questions would be optional (ie just because there’s a question about a characteristic doesn’t mean anyone has to answer it).

About a third of those who will eventually be asked to complete the census responded through this form. Everyone thought some questions should definitely be included in the census, but only three characteristics had no one objecting to them being included: ethnicity, educational qualifications, and travel / commuting. I honestly found this a little astonishing (I expected fewer objections to asking questions that no one is obliged to answer, and more consistency about which questions were objected to). The only characteristic where more people said “definitely do not include” than said “definitely include” was political beliefs, so we removed that question.

The comments from the team were excellent in helping to refine the census questions and the process. They caught privacy risks that I hadn’t spotted (and some I had but hadn’t dealt with as well as they needed to be), highlighted where questions made assumptions that made them feel excluded (the standard questions I’ve reused have mostly assumed UK respondents, and the ODI team includes many other nationalities), and one area of diversity that we hadn’t adequately covered, namely neurodiversity.

I couldn’t find any standardised questions around neurodiversity. The only ones that came close were those around disability, which is a really problematic way of viewing neurodivergence. I ended up using this CIPD guide to Neurodiversity at Work to design two questions:

Do you consider yourself to be neurodivergent?

One of:

  • Yes
  • No
  • I’m not sure

Do you have any of these features of neurodivergent people?

Any number of:

  • Highly logical thinking
  • Very strong ability to focus
  • Excellent attention to detail
  • Excellent factual recall
  • Exceptional creativity
  • Excellent at pattern recognition
  • Excellent at big picture thinking
  • Excellent at expressing a vision and storytelling
  • Very comfortable with risk taking and uncertainty
  • Excellent at problem solving
  • Excellent at multi-tasking
  • Excellent composure in high-pressure situations
  • Sensory sensitivity (eg discomfort from noise, light)
  • Difficulty communicating and interacting with people
  • Difficulty reading people and social situations
  • Difficulty with changes to your routine
  • Difficulty conceptualising abstract ideas
  • Poor working memory, personal organisation and time management
  • Difficulty with reading and/or writing
  • Difficulty with numbers and/or arithmetic
  • Difficulty with motor coordination and operating machinery or computers
  • Difficulty with maintaining focus (eg easily distracted)
  • Difficulty with switching focus when in a state of ‘flow’
  • Verbal or physical tics
  • Other (please describe)
  • None of these

As you can probably tell, I particularly wanted to highlight the strengths of neurodivergence, both for neurodivergent people who might be answering the question and for those who might learn about those strengths when they encounter the question. (See recent articles about the strengths of autistic people and dyslexic people.) But I would much prefer to be using a properly designed standard question or set of questions if anyone knows of one.

The census is currently undergoing legal review by ODI’s lawyers, and then ethical review by the ODI Ethics Committee, before it can actually – hopefully – be distributed to the team.

Fundraising

My attention is now turning (has to turn) to the perennial task of fundraising. There are two parts to this at ODI: getting budget through the UK government spending review (UK government money makes up about a third of our revenue) and attracting philanthropic funding.

This is the part of my job that I hate the most. I don’t mind aspects of it: I quite like writing and pulling together plans and proposals for pieces of work and for ODI as a whole. I like discussing data-related issues and problems, and the work we’re doing on them. I enjoy meeting and building relationships with people who care about these issues too.

But I do hate entering conversations with people with the motive of getting money out of them. I dislike feeling like I should be amending what I say in order to avoid disrupting a deal, or exaggerating in order to get one. (Which is odd because I have no problem in most interactions being careful about what I say in order to avoid upsetting people or to persuade them of something, just I don’t like getting funding as a motive for doing so.)

And I’ve been reflecting that I think my dislike for fundraising is partly because I have happily sailed through most of my life getting recognition for my work – and more work given to me as a result – simply through being passably good and very open. I’ve built things or written things and people have come without me really having to do much at all to attract them. To the extent that I now vaguely resent having to work at it. I should (a) get over myself and (b) remind myself to think of fundraising as a communications and relationship-building exercise rather than a sales one to give myself more motivation around it.

Interesting conversations

This month I’ve chatted with:

  • Claire, CEO of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, which I’m on the Advisory Board for, about their work around the climate crisis, and areas where both ODI and GPAI might work with them.

  • Giselle, CEO of DataKind UK, mostly about the Data Collective and about the upcoming Data4Good Festival

  • Upol about the latest parts of his hugely interesting research on the use of algorithms in exam grading and the impact on students outside the UK who take exams protected by Ofqual regulation.

  • Various people at DCMS about the National Data Strategy and data policy more generally.

  • Stephen Browning from InnovateUK about the next stages of the Next Generation Services Challenge Fund, which I’m on the advisory board for. The fund has so far focused on supporting the existing services sector (or the accountancy, legal and insurance parts of it) to adopt more digital ways of doing their work. I’m arguing that there are new services sectors around data (the Build Back Better plan for growth talks about the UK being a “global service, digital and data hub”) and new products required from existing service sectors, to support digital/data adoption (eg audits to include data and algorithmic auditing; insurance to cover data risks).

  • Anne from the World Economic Forum about cross-border data flows.

  • Anna and Peter about their work at the Centre for Public Data on address and other geospatial data.

  • Vilas from the McGovern Foundation about data institutions and other work around data for good.

  • Jon from Demos about his work on an open standard for digital identity and a technical and institutional architecture to support controls around data portability.

  • Sarah Cumbers from the Lloyds Register Foundation to catch up about their work using data to evaluate the impact of – and opportunities for – their programmes.

  • Ira to just generally catch up.

GPAI

GPAI work has made a big step forward this month as the Working Groups have narrowed down the scope of their proposed work with the deadline of the next GPAI Summit in November (which requires work to be done by early October) sharpening minds.

Within the Data Governance Working Group, we have defined two projects:

  • Enabling data sharing for social benefit through data institutions which will look to do the fundamental work to support the creation of data institutions / data trusts (we’re being deliberately ambiguous at the moment) by GPAI.
  • Advancing research and practice on data justice: preliminary guidance for AI developers, policy makers and communities affected by the use of AI which aims to help practitioners and users to include considerations of equity and justice in terms of access to, and visibility and representation in, data used in the development of AI/ML systems.

We’re hoping to be able to support work carried out by other Working Groups, specifically around:

  • Climate action, led by the Responsible AI Working Group
  • Drug discovery, co-led by the Pandemic Response and Responsible AI Working Groups
  • Pressing new IP issues, led by the Innovation and Commercialisation Working Group
  • Social media, led by the Responsible AI Working Group

We’re currently waiting for those plans to be approved by the Steering Committee in mid May, before they’re formally signed off by the Council in June. There are a number of elements that will involve contracting external experts to support the work.

Other work

I attended several advisory groups this month:

  • An advisory group for the Office for Statistics Regulation’s research programme into the public good of statistics. Their report last December outlined four ways of viewing what “public good” means – legislative, empirical, economic and social – and they are proceeding with interviews, discussions and surveys of various stakeholder groups, including the public, to understand wider perception. Really interesting work that has a strong relationship with thinking about the role of data more generally.

  • This month’s GOV.UK Advisory Group where we spent a good piece of time talking about their work on the starting and sustaining a business user journey. My main point in the discussion was that starting (and sustaining) a business involves a whole set of interactions outside government as well as those with government (eg setting up bank accounts, getting insurance, finding an accountant, registering and domain name etc) and that there’s a challenge here about how to integrate with and support those (especially given that it’s already complicated enough just dealing with the government side!). The other thing that was niggling at me was the degree to which these user journeys can dictate or direct people towards a particular option – such as setting up a limited company rather than a cooperative or community interest company. There’s a whole lot of nudging power here that needs to be consciously and carefully wielded.

  • The Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) Advisory Board, for the last time, having decided to step down because of other demands and opportunities. I joined OCP’s Advisory Board when the organisation was just coming into existence, in 2014, and it was my first experience of being on the inside of that kind of international, multi-stakeholder initiative. I have learned a huge amount from the other Advisory Board members over the years, as well as from the leadership of Gavin, Kathrin and Lindsey. I’m hugely proud of having played a small part in their organisation over the last few years.

I spoke at:

  • The launch of the report “We Need to Talk About Data: Framing the Debate Around the Free Flow of Data and Data Sovereignty” from the Internet and Jurisdiction Policy Network – a recorded set of comments since I was actually on leave at the time! They also published a brief blog reflecting some of those thoughts.

  • A roundtable hosted by Oliver Wyman Forum and Chatham House on Cross-border Data Sharing Amidst Global Change where I spoke about the importance of privacy protections (and other protections from harm) as a guarantee that supports and enables the free flow of data and data services trade, rather than a being a threat to it. The most interesting observations I heard there were the assertion that trust in how data is used arises from understanding the benefits of that use (it’s a theory) and that China isn’t a competitive threat as a provider of data/digital/AI services because its data protections and practices won’t be internationally acceptable (which implies, I guess, that the US’s are?).

  • The Research Data Alliance Plenary, where I was the opening keynote(!) and spoke about trends in the use of data and evidence to support policy-making, the role of research data within the wider data ecosystem, and the importance of the RDA’s work in navigating through a period of rapid change driven by greater data availability. The conference was my first experience of the Juno platform, and I loved getting live emoticon reactions to what I was saying (counteracting the usual feeling you get at virtual events of speaking into the void). I also loved the cèilidh music that opened the conference (all virtual events should start with music, I’ve decided, including simple video conferences). It was a difficult talk to write, partly because I was exploring topics in presentation form for the first time, but seemed to go down well with the audience, though my 17yo daughter was less impressed.

I was interviewed for an article in Tech Monitor about the Digital Economic Partnership Agreement (DEPA).

Milly and I both published blogs about the report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Mine focused on the notion of “objective data”, containing some of the thoughts I wrote about last month. Milly’s on implications for data policy and practice, including inventing the phrase “haunted algorithms” echoing the report’s implication that people from ethnic minorities are “haunted by historic racism” rather than it being built into and perpetuated by the fundamental structure of our institutions, and the Prime Minister’s reference to “mutant algorithms” during the qualifications fiasco last year. I think that horror imagery applied to algorithms is a rich seam which deserves more mining – we should surely be talking more about “zombie algorithms”, “vampire algorithms” and “Frankenstein algorithms”.

Personal

Work life

The big news is that I am finally going to move to working only four days a week from the start of June, a goal that I’ve had for a number of years. I’m currently working my contracted hours in four days anyway, but the number of hours isn’t the point: it’s the feeling of not having to work for three days out of seven. I’m hoping that (a) this will give me more of a chance to recuperate and make me more creative and effective during the working week and (b) that it will give me more opportunity to do some hands-on programming and/or data science, which I will enjoy.

The only other thing to record is that I’ve been deliberate about using my standing desk more this month and that’s working out well. I’ve surprised myself at how long I’m able to stand each day (would undoubtedly be less if I wasn’t having fun on the wobble board).

Home life

It would not normally be worth recording this but… I was very excited to have my first professional haircut in over a year when lockdown lifted. Probably the best part was catching up with my hairdresser, who runs her own business, and who was extremely busy but obviously buoyed up by seeing so many happy customers.

I also had my first Covid-19 vaccination. This involved a train ride, which was fine on the way there, but somehow I got on the wrong train on the way back and ended up somewhere unexpected. I decided to walk to get a bus (train services are still reduced, and waiting for a train in the opposite direction would have taken even longer), and was just thinking that it would be just typical if I sprained my ankle or twisted my knee while walking when… guess what. So on top of post-vaccination symptoms (I was feverish for 24 hours), I have been hobbling around the house and it has simply been reinforced to me that the Big Room is a dangerous place I should simply avoid.

During the Easter holiday, I decided it would be fun to spend time on making a video game. Be under no illusions that this is because I wanted to actually create a video game that anyone would ever play – the output was not really the point here. Rather, I wanted to do some programming (one of my favourite activities) and a video game was context I chose to use to indulge that desire. The concept is a Stardew-Valley-like game revolving around a witch gathering potion ingredients in a wood. I used Godot, which is a gaming engine you can program with a python-esque scripting language, and learned from this excellent set of videos. I roped in members of the family to help with pixel art (I recommend Piskel – a free online pixel art editor) and happily wiled away many hours on creative problem solving on things like how to auto-generate realistic looking bodies of water.

Video games we’ve been playing:

  • It Takes Two – a cooperative puzzle/adventure game where you play two doll versions of divorcing parents, navigating domestic landscapes and battling things like deranged vacuum cleaners and a robotic wasp queen controlled by a bubblebee agent of a squirrel colony. The scenarios are quite mad; the parkour is at just the right level of challenging; there’s a pleasing variety of gameplay and real need for coordination and cooperation. We’re only part way through and I’m enjoying it but hoping the story and relationship develop a little more too. Recommended.

  • Dorfromantik which is in early access but fully functional. It’s a chill tile-based landscape-building puzzle/strategy game and if it was available on the Mac or Android I would be playing it a lot more.

Claire picked up on the desire I wrote about, back in January I think, to play Good Society, the Jane Austen role-playing game, so we put the word out on Twitter and gathered a few other volunteers, so I’ll be facilitating a game over the next couple of months. I’ve been excitedly refreshing my memory about the rules and spent my post-vaccination lazy day (and bits of time since) “researching” by watching Jane Austen adaptations of Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Sanditon and Mansfield Park that I hadn’t previously seen.

Other TV we’ve been watching:

  • Money Heist – we’ve now watched all four series. The first two were really brilliant, highly recommended; the second two (after being taken up by Netflix) a little less so, but still good.
  • Invincible – yeah this is definitely an adult cartoon, for all that it’s about a teenage superhero – an engaging watch.
  • Shadow and Bone – we’re fans of the original novels of the Grishaverse by Leigh Bardugo, particularly the Six of Crows duology. It’s slightly confusing having the same characters but not the same plot as the books, but the setting, action and – most particularly – romance is what we’re really watching for. Excellent young adult steampunk-ish fantasy fare.
  • Law & Order – now part way through series 7. I try to guess the content of each episode based purely on its title, and am almost always wrong. We watch out for tropes like the cops interviewing people while they’re loading their trucks. The finale of series 6 was traumatic not just for killing off a main character (as usual in Law & Order, her existence barely recognised after she left) but because it wasn’t about a case.

Family film watching:

Mental health

Various things at work, and the Basecamp farrago, have made me reflect on leadership and management styles.

I’m putting this under “mental health” because I have spent a lot of the past few years thinking of myself as being poor at, ill-equipped for and a failure as a leader, which is painful not only because being bad at anything is painful but also because I blame myself for letting people down and holding back ODI, an organisation I care about a lot and want to see thrive and grow beyond me.

I think in the 3.5 years I was CEO at ODI there was maybe six months, maximum, about a year into the role, when I felt there might be some validity or value in the way I lead. I resigned when I realised that my self-confidence as a leader was so low that I didn’t even want to try to improve any more (learning is one of my core values; not wanting to improve is not me). In an effort for mental self-preservation, I boxed away the part of me that is interested in improving how organisations work and what good leadership looks like.

So opening this box even a little bit is difficult for me, but I think important in starting to answer a question that is always niggling at the back of my mind: whether I could ever take on a proper leadership role in an organisation again or whether I should explicitly aim not to do so.

I’ve been reflecting on organisational cultures and how leaders shape them. We often think of this as an active thing leaders do: describing your vision and telling stories; changing policies and processes; altering information flows through new systems and structures. But organisational cultures also come about by drifting, buoyed by the currents of external changes; the evolution of the team as people join, grow and leave; and your accidental or unconscious impact as you work day to day as a leader.

(From all that I’ve seen and from what I’ve experienced myself, the gap between intention and impact from non-deliberate action is one of the things that’s most challenging for leaders to recognise and reconcile ourselves to. The way our presence changes the scope of conversations; how words from us have more weight than those from others; what people read into non-verbal cues from our expressions, or even the way we walk across the office; how where we place our attention makes people feel seen or undervalued. Leaders live under surveillance. Dealing with that requires self-awareness and self-control and makes leadership a lonely position.)

Then I have been thinking about how different cultures attract and suit different people and different roles. My leadership style reflects the culture that I prefer to work in – one that reflects my core values, which means a focus on reflection and learning; on compassion and collaboration; and on humour and informality. I have to believe that there are strengths in a culture like that, but there are very real weaknesses too. I know it’s particularly frustrating for people who prefer less navel-gazing, faster and more top-down decision making, or more professionalism.

So I think there is an element of good leadership being about a match between organisational / team needs and leadership style, and being a good leader therefore being as much about finding or creating an organisation that is a match for your style as it is about developing universally good leadership practices.

Simon Wardley’s description of the different roles of Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners within an organisation also makes me think, though, that organisations need to contain different cultures in order to do everything they need to do, from risk-taking exploration through to metric-driven routine. And in that case, leadership needs to be more about holding the space that enables those different, diverse, cultures to co-exist.

Anyway, these lines of thought haven’t led anywhere yet, but I thought I’d share them. While I’m at it, here’s a bunch of books that I found useful when I was desperately trying to make up for my lack of experience around leadership with book knowledge.

It’s interesting, now I look at this as a list, that they’re all by men.

March 2021 Month Notes

Apr 3, 2021

Following on from my February month notes, here are some for March.

ODI

InnovateUK R&D programme

March is always a horribly busy month at ODI, because we tend to have a lot of projects that end with the government financial year, on 31st March, and no matter how much we try to plan not to have everything completing at the very last minute, somehow they always do.

This March has been particularly hectic because it’s seen the end of the InnovateUK-funded R&D programme of work we’ve been working on over the last four years. If you’d like to learn more about that, take a look at the highlights of the programme as a whole.

So I have spent a lot of time reviewing and signing off other people’s work.

Tensions between reviewers and the people whose work is being reviewed have been a common challenge at ODI. The senior internal review process we try to adopt now, particularly for reports and other substantial publications, is roughly:

  1. An early discussion on the target audience and scope of an output (30-60mins).
  2. A mid-point review of the structure / flow based on a draft with headings and bullets that indicate rough content; usually this is best as a combination of reading/commenting (30mins) and discussion (30mins).
  3. A final draft detail review that focuses on content and language (I get through roughly 20 pages/hour if the document is in reasonable shape).
  4. Sign off on the copy-edited and formatted final output (30mins).

This should be complemented with other internal and external reviews too. But I will say it doesn’t always work out like that. Some of the early stages sometimes get skipped, or there are direction changes between steps, or there isn’t much time between them.

I find this tricky because:

  • When I tap into them, I have pretty high standards and strong opinions on everything from content to structure to grammar, so am seldom 100% happy with anyone’s work (including my own). I also feel a lot of responsibility for ensuring ODI has a reputation for quality.

  • I rarely feel totally confident about something unless I thoroughly comprehend it; I need to probe and understand the basis for statements and conclusions. But in reality, aside from academic research papers and Wikipedia articles, documents seldom need to or should contain the level of justification that makes me feel completely comfortable with them, so I end up asking “how do we know?” questions that take time to answer.

  • I am super aware of the knock-on impacts of the feedback that I provide, both on those whose work I’m reviewing and on project planning and delivery; tight deadlines mean that sometimes I hold back and let things go, and sometimes I have to adopt a more directive leadership style than I’m usually comfortable with. It means there is a limit to what changes are feasible.

  • I have limited time and rely on people to tell me what things need my attention, which means that I have blind spots – a lot of unknown unknowns – which make me itchy, but I also think it’s important to (a) trust the team and (b) preserve my downtime.

The upshot is that amongst all the work that’s just been published, there’s some that I feel really pleased with and confident about, and other pieces where I wish we’d had more time and more eyes. BUT all the pieces of work that we’ve progressed this year will be directly useful to ODI’s future programmes of work: there will be time to iterate and improve them, in the same way we were able to gradually refine the Data Ethics canvas over a number of years. We’d love feedback on them:

  • The Data Landscape Playbook will be used within our Data Ecosystems and Innovation programme, as a methodology for understanding current data ecosystems and thinking through the logic model of data access initiatives.

  • The Trustworthy Data Stewardship Guidebook will inform our Data Assurance programme and has already helped us think about the kind of support that organisations actually need to assess, build and demonstrate trust and trustworthiness.

  • The Sustainable Data Access Workbook will help give some structure to the conversations we have with all kinds of organisations, but especially data institutions, about how to adopt business and revenue models that support (rather than restrict) data sharing.

The other thing I know is, in the words of the Agile Prime Directive, is that everyone on the ODI team – from the researchers, delivery managers, and project leads, through to the designers, editors, and marketers – have done “the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand”. I’m really proud of them, and grateful for their work, and all my reflections are about how we can create processes and structure that make things work even better in future pieces of work.

Strategic work

Programme planning

This month has seen the “end of the beginning” for the new ODI programmes of work. The programme leads completed their strategies and plans for 2021, presented these to the ODI Board and received some final steers, and the new programmes officially started on 1st April.

I wrote last month about structuring questions-options-and-recommendations papers for the Board, in the hope that they would help structure meaningful discussion. The good news is that this worked well, and we got very positive feedback from the Board about the way the questions were pitched and structured. I have found it extremely personally satisfying being able to help make that interaction between programme leads and the Board work well.

I also wrote last month about my unease around the setting of KPIs for the programmes. We managed to secure a few days of ex-ODIer Phil Horgan, who is a monitoring, evaluation and learning expert. He gave some useful feedback on the logic models we’d put together and some suggestions about appropriate KPIs against them. When we’re back after Easter we’re aiming to finalise those.

The final challenge is reorienting the team, most of whom have been focused on the InnovateUK R&D work over the past few years, towards the projects the programme leads are aiming to take forward, and turn the grand strategic plans into concrete implementation. But that moves outside my area of responsibility.

Talking about our commercial work

A second strategic area that I’ve been pushing at ODI is about why we do commercial work (that is, transactional work that generates margin for us, mostly for private and public sector clients) and how we talk about it. During March, I took this conversation to the Senior Leadership Team at ODI, and work on it will be embedded into two ongoing pieces of work:

  1. Shaping our narrative and key messages about the ODI, as part of our editorial guidelines.
  2. Designing the process for deciding what work we do.

We’ve been round this loop a few times before at ODI, but the new programme structure, focus on SDGs, and new leadership in key areas present a good opportunity to get something solid in place that can underpin our work for the next few years.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Looking back at this month, a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has been a constant theme across all aspects of my work and life. In terms of internal work, there have been a couple of things. First, the ODI Senior Leadership Team had an afternoon of diversity and inclusion training from EW Group, which I was also included in. And second, arising out of that, I have been working on designing a diversity census for the ODI.

It is interesting, and challenging, for me to reflect on my attitude and approach to DEI, as a person and a leader. I am a woman in the tech industry, and bisexual (but in a relationship with a guy since my early 20s, so I look hetero) but I have seldom personally felt like I’ve been set back or had a markedly different experience from other people around me on account of those characteristics. On the few occasions I have encountered problems or barriers, correctly or not I ascribe it to my youth (when I was young), personality (eg being an introvert), values (eg money is not my primary motivation, so it’s reasonable when resources are tight for me to be paid less than the men around me who are motivated by it) and luck. And when positive things happen (such as being asked to speak or be on an Advisory Board), it offends me to think that these are because I’m a woman rather than my work.

In addition, I never feel happy professing expertise in something that I haven’t researched, studied and spent time thinking about. (Just this month, I was asked to speak about gender bias in AI and said I couldn’t because it isn’t an area I’ve specifically looked at.) I also feel it is particularly problematic to do so when there are scholars, practitioners and organisations from minoritised communities who do have that expertise and whose voices need to be heard.

Consequently, I always feel very uncomfortable when I’m asked to talk about being a woman in tech, let along other aspects of diversity. That’s spread into being reluctant to take a leadership role around DEI within ODI, or to push ODI to do so within the wider data community.

But here’s the thing: stepping back to make space for others looks a lot like stepping back because you can’t be bothered, or don’t believe in the cause. Stepping back to make space doesn’t support those who are stepping forward, it leaves them isolated. I am coming to the realisation that I and we need to be more like the first follower. This is a hard realisation because I am filled with regret and guilt for the times I have not been that, and knowledge that I may well continue to fail people in the future. It’s also empowering because helping others achieve their goals is one of my favourite things to do. And it’s challenging because amplifying others can turn into exploiting them, and supporting them can result in unintentionally taking over or drowning them out, neither of which are things I want to do.

Practically, what that’s meant this month is that I’ve gotten my teeth into taking forward an idea from the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Group within ODI: carrying out a diversity census of the team and Board, to help prioritise our DEI activities and create a baseline against which we can assess the results of our efforts. This was something the DEI Group first looked at in September, but – because of a lack of time and, I think, a feeling there wasn’t high level support – weren’t able to progress.

I’ve spent several very happy hours documenting:

  • why a census is necessary
  • the principles that the process and the census have to meet
  • the process and timeline for completing it
  • the questions and options for the census
  • how it will technically be administered and analysed
  • all the privacy considerations

It’s been fascinating exploring which questions to include (what kinds of diversity do we care about?), finding the standard ways to ask them (thank you GSS and ONS for publishing harmonisation guidelines!), and working out how to adapt them to the ODI team. I’ve also enjoyed getting practical around privacy, ethics, and participation – things I talk about all the time – in a concrete data collection exercise.

Once it’s all in shape, we’re planning to publish reflections and the materials for others to use and learn from as well as actually running the census to understand ourselves better.

Project work

This month I have contributed to a couple of roundtables that have been really expertly led and put together by our Head of Public Policy Milly (who is simply brilliant). These were on:

  • Inclusive Data which we ran in partnership with the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Centre for Public Data where we hoped to support organisations responding to the ONS consultation on inclusive data, and to learn from them about things we should include in our own response. You should read the report from the roundtable, particularly the case study about data collection by Gypsy, Romani and Traveller communities, and listen to the provocations if you have the time. It was such a rich discussion and I loved how Milly framed it and encouraged us to think of inclusive practice as “rich, sophisticated and rewarding” rather than “difficult, complex and challenging”.

  • Innovation and the Data Economy: Opportunities for UK Regulators which we ran in partnership with the Better Regulation Executive and have yet to write up. It’s clear to us that regulators have a really important role to play in creating open, trustworthy data ecosystems for their regulated sectors. The question is how to help them to do that better. We explored areas that are relevant to our new programmes of work, such as how to stimulate innovation, develop open standards, and improve data governance across regulated sectors.

Milly has also been structuring and leading some work around embedding some of the key things we think are important into discussions around the G7. Ideas like:

  • open data standards, allowing data interoperability and building on the policy priority of digital technical standards
  • open models for cooperation and innovation, recognising the G7’s ambition to place the needs of open societies at the heart of the technology debate
  • data institutions for trusted data sharing, crucial for data free flows with trust, cross-sector collaboration, pandemic resilience and climate action

are important across all the G7 themes. We’ve been working with Gavin Freeguard and Mark Boyd on this; we’re having more traction than expected; and it’s a team that likes to have fun! Milly’s leadership has again been superb.

I also helped shape and frame our work on the impact of the pandemic on teachers’ lives, which was led by the Allegory team, researched by Dr Miranda Voss and supported on the data analysis side by Mime Consulting using data opened by the NASUWT. This is one of what we call internally our “Flagship Stories” – where we make points about data and data infrastructure through a story that will reach normal people. These are really difficult to pull off, because it’s easy to lose the data message in the consumer story, or to be so pernickety on the data front that you lose the story. The big challenge with this one was getting to a state where we could say anything interesting at all on the back of a survey with a low response rate.

I also contributed to our consultation response on Transforming public procurement which enabled us to resurface work that we did years ago around how to embed the creation of (open) data infrastructure into public procurement ITTs and contracts.

Interesting conversations

This month I’ve chatted with:

  • Advisers at No.10 and HMT about government’s data ambitions.
  • Art UK, which is a brilliant example of a civil society data institution, holding a catalogue of art held in private collections across the UK and with an interesting and ingenious business model that includes helping those collections sell merchandise based on their artworks. I really hope that we can amplify their work more and work more with them.
  • Catherine and Molly from Creative Commons.
  • Various people at DCMS about the next steps with the National Data Strategy, CDEI and the G7.
  • Martin and Swee Leng at Luminate.
  • Ira at NHSX, about open standards and G7.
  • OpenStreetMap about open addresses.
  • The Smart Data team in BEIS.
  • iSPIRT about data institutions.
  • Simon McDougall at the ICO, and Tabitha Goldstaub for some good gossip and plotting!
  • People at the Ada Lovelace Institute about their work on the location data ethics project (which I’m on the Oversight Group for)
  • GOV.UK about content taxonomies, to follow up on previous conversations surfaced at the GOV.UK Advisory Board I’m part of.
  • Rockefeller Foundation about our data institutions work.
  • People at a big international company about their data strategy.
  • Microsoft about the second year of our programme of work with them.
  • Lord Tim Clement-Jones in a brilliantly energetic chat about our work and the UK AI and data landscape more generally.
  • Natalie about next steps to support better data infrastructure in the justice sector
  • Christina about unions as data institutions
  • Andrew about good governance around data access and organisational data assets more generally. He introduced me to the notion of steward-owned companies which is really interesting.
  • Lorrayne and Bertrand from the Internet & Jurisdiction Secretariat about their upcoming report around data sovereignty and the free flow of data.

I took part in a roundtable on best practices and guidance on sharing the value of NHS data, in support of some work commissioned by NHSX and being delivered by Imperial.

I also presented to the Legal Services Board about the role of regulators in data ecosystems.

I was interviewed twice by researchers doing research for DCMS on:

  • how organisations get private value from data
  • the economic value of the wider sharing of data

and about an ESRC initiative to create data institution(s) to support researcher access to new and emerging forms of data.

GPAI

Making progress around GPAI has been a little difficult this month, simply because it’s a young organisation that has a lot of ambition but not yet either a clear direction or focus, nor a tested process for identifying one.

The Working Groups, including the Data Governance Working Group that I co-chair, were up and running last summer. The Steering Committee, which is supposed to provide direction (and brings together government representatives with elected non-government members) was only elected at the end of last year.

The Working Groups have spent the last couple of months putting together concept notes for potential projects to run over the next 18 months, and the hope was that the Steering Committee would be able to provide a steer around which of these to prioritise. But they are still forming as a committee, and the feedback we’ve been given is a combination of things we already know (eg that we need to prioritise), that are difficult to achieve (eg deliver something impactful, quickly), and that are contentious (eg don’t make recommendations to governments).

I am sure these are teething problems and that discussions over the next month will make things clearer, but it results in a challenge for Working Group co-chairs like me who have to keep Working Group members, especially those who have donated so much of their time and thinking to the creation of concept notes, active and engaged.

The approach we’ve taken is to anticipate the kinds of things the Steering Committee is likely to ask us to do, and started work to:

  1. Prioritise and merge the concept notes for projects that we wanted to take forward to narrow down to 2-3 we can take to the Steering Committee for discussion, and hopefully progress.

  2. Create a list of data governance activities that we can embed into SDG-focused projects led by other Working Groups, such as around drug discovery, pandemic response, climate change or the future of work. These include practical implementation of some of the areas we think are interesting from a data governance perspective, so should serve the dual purpose of supporting those projects and advancing understanding around data governance.

  3. Bring together the concept notes for the larger set of project ideas into a publishable “applied research and development agenda”, so that the work is surfaced outside GPAI and can hopefully prompt governments and others to fund projects in those areas.

Through all this, I have to say that it is just a joy to work with my co-chair, Maja Bogataj Jančič, who is funny and frank and so kind and generous, and with the superb support of Ed Teather who is brilliantly diligent (and has good taste in board games). We also have a lot of truly awesome, thoughtful, hard working experts in the Working Group itself, and a new cohort (with new energy) has just joined as new countries have signed up to GPAI. So thankfully that side of the co-chairing role is great!

Other work

I attended the GOV.UK Advisory Group this month, where we discussed their priorities and roadmap. There are some people (in the advisory group) who think of GOV.UK as a destination or one-stop-shop for citizens and businesses who need to interact with or get information from government. And there are people like me who think of it much more as a platform of official information and transactions that others should be able to reuse, re-present and interface with. It reminds me of the debates I used to have with John Sheridan when we were working on legislation.gov.uk, trying to work out what functionality we should provide as a public service and where we should leave space for others to build additional tools on top of it.

Conference season hit with a vengeance. I spoke at:

I was also (very briefly) on BBC Radio Wales, talking excitedly about the census! My first radio gig in a while.

Thoughts I had

Aside from DEI, which I already touched on above, another theme for the month has been about the role of organisations like community groups and unions in collecting and reporting data about their members. We talked about this at the Inclusive Data Roundtable we ran, demonstrated a form of how it can work through our work with the NASUWT around teacher experience in the pandemic, and it’s been a theme in several of the conversations I had this month.

The idea of “counterdata” is one I was introduced to through the amazing and highly recommended book Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein, as a way of providing an alternative narrative to that provided by those with power and privilege who so often shape data collection.

We can see some of this play out in the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which makes great play of being informed by data collected by the Cabinet Office’s Race and Disparity Unit. I was struck by this sentence in the report (my emphasis):

We suggest that pessimistic narratives about race have also been reinforced by a rise of identity politics, as old class divisions have lost traction. Well organised single-issue identity lobby groups also help to raise the volume. These organisations can do good work protecting the vulnerable, but they also tend to have a pessimism bias in their narratives to draw attention to their cause. And they tend to stress the ‘lived experience’ of the groups they seek to protect with less emphasis on objective data. It is not surprising therefore that mainstream public debate about race sensitises minorities to discrimination, but does less to highlight minority self-reliance and resilience.

This sentence highlights the common assumption that data is objective, the implication that it is superior to qualitative information, and the idea that negative experiences felt by some people can be balanced against more positive experiences felt by others (ie that what matters is the average). All these are problematic. Data does not simply emerge as a ground truth, it is collected and shaped by those who collect it, especially when it is about people. Data is only one part of a richer set of material that people have to use to fully understand reality; it is necessarily simplified and restricted. And I simply do not agree that harms in one place can be balanced by benefits elsewhere: they should be reduced regardless, because they are harmful.

Back to the point I wanted to make: I do think that unions, consumer advocacy groups and other civil society organisations have an important role to play in gathering data to represent the experience of their communities, especially in a context where authorities place more weight on “objective data” than they do on other forms of evidence. We also have to prepare for authorities to ignore and undermine that data, critiquing its methodology and biases while failing to provide the same critical lens to its own. And we have to avoid falling into the same traps of thinking that data is the only form of truth that it is worth surfacing.

Personal

Work life

  • I have made no progress on getting through my email backlog and am struggling to keep up with following ups from meetings.
  • I have found it very hard to be in a good routine around reflecting on my day and planning my priorities for the next one; I need to be firmer about the end of my work day and using that daily review as my ending-work routine.
  • I am not using my standing desk enough!

On the positive side, getting down to work at 8am is still going well, but as we come into April I’m not going to have as much reviewing to do, so planning how to use that time fruitfully is going to become more important.

Home life

My kids returned to going into school near the beginning of the month, and started their Easter holiday at the end. My partner has received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, but I haven’t. We’re still mostly in lockdown.

I’ve started growing some seedlings, including some sunflowers from seeds made available by one of our neighbours. Growing plants from seeds was something I did last year, during the first lockdown, and really benefited from later in the summer when the flowers and fruit came out. I’m not sure they’re growing as well this year, perhaps because I’ve got them at the back of the house where there’s less sunshine.

Video games:

  • There’s been quite a lot of stress and excitement in the house because one of the games my partner has been working on for years – Outriders – has just been released and is doing well (with some teething problems with servers). It’s not the kind of game that I enjoy, but if you’re into third-person shooters, you should check it out.

  • Spiritfarer – we really enjoyed playing this, but then got very sad when most of our passengers crossed over and we felt we were reaching the end of the game. So we actually stopped playing because we didn’t want it to end – there are some updates coming so it’s not as weird as it sounds to pause for now.

  • Haven – my eldest and I avoided this for a while despite recommendations around it, just because it felt like it would be a bit weird playing as a couple (who do get intimate with each other on occasion). But actually the way the dialogue system works means that you don’t really inhabit the individual characters, which makes it less awkward. We’ve really enjoyed it: exploring, gathering supplies, working out collaborative strategies for different enemies. The story is interesting and the dialogue natural. Yet to complete, but one I would recommend.

  • 7th Sector – a puzzle game with a nice feel. I stopped playing though because I found the more physical / timing puzzles too unforgiving and frustrating.

  • Genesis Noir – adventure/puzzle game that is an indescribable mix of cosmology, civilisation development, love story and jazz, with a unique aesthetic. I did enjoy this.

  • Stardew Valley – I do feel slightly ashamed of this, but I got through all the Sudoku puzzles, and felt the need for something that I could play on my phone when I’m brain dead. But it is horribly addictive and I find it very hard to stop when I start playing, so it’s not something I can spend just 20 minutes playing at a time.

TV we’ve been watching:

  • Lupin – very good
  • Call My Agent! – we loved how this could go rapidly from comedy to drama, and how every character is both sympathetic and flawed; the cameos would mean more for people who watch more French cinema and TV, no doubt.
  • Money Heist – just brilliant, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so fearful about every twist and turn of a plot; we’ve just started the second series and know it’s going to turn out badly (not least because all the relationships we’re rooting for are doomed) but can’t help hoping for everything to be OK in the end.
  • Law & Order – part way through series 5 now and two female leads (who just got swapped in for existing characters without any explanation)! We were very sad when Ben left, and still find D.A. Schiff absolutely hilarious in his pessimism.

Family film watching:

  • Big Hero 6 – watched for about the fourth time I think, but still love it
  • Mr Jones – flawed but not dreadful: could have done with being a bit shorter, and I didn’t believe in either the romantic relationship nor anyone’s support for Stalin’s regime
  • White Tiger – really enjoyed this; pacy and thought-provoking; worth watching

Mental health

I’m not going to get into all the details, but the return to school for my youngest has been even rougher than I anticipated and wrote about last month. Fortunately, the school has been incredibly supportive and flexible which has enabled my youngest to participate more than they would otherwise be able to. I have always tried to focus on what I see as important from education, namely fostering curiosity, a love of learning and a supportive peer group rather than academic achievement (the kids get more than enough pressure from school on that front). Right now, my sights for my youngest are even lower: I’m just prioritising them not being cripplingly miserable.

Completing the census for my non-binary child and some subsequent conversations on Twitter highlighted to me the frustration of identifying as non-binary in a world where binary gender is such a built-in assumption. I do understand how and why people can find it hard to think about gender as a social construct, and therefore one that is fluid and can change. I get oddly more annoyed about the lack of recognition of intersex people in official and medical records (perhaps it’s because it’s a data modelling and quality issue). The fact that whether an NHS number is odd or even indicates whether someone is male or female, for example, is an illustration of how data simplifies reality. It really feels like we should be able to do better.

But trans visibility day on TikTok lifted my spirits. I’ll leave you with some I particularly enjoyed:

February 2021 Month Notes

Feb 28, 2021

I wrote some month notes in January. It was satisfying putting them together, and some people seemed to appreciate them, so here are some for February.

ODI

Strategic work

Programme planning

As I wrote last month, we’re currently putting together plans for five programmes of work that we will structure our work around over the next few years, on data literacy, data assurance, data for challenges*, data institutions, and evidence & foresight.

* We’re not sure about the name of this programme, because it sounds like it’s focused purely on putting the right data together for innovation challenge prizes, where we mean it to encompass more extensive data initiatives or programmes of work that might also cover things like creating common standards or policies, and not include challenge prize activities. Naming things is hard.

I’m really pleased with how things are progressing with most of those plans, and in particular how the programme leads are taking (and feeling) ownership of them. In case it’s helpful (I struggled for a long time around how to describe programmes of work), here’s the structure of the programme summaries I put together to help guide the programme leads:

  • One paragraph summary
  • Background: the problem statement for the programme, laying out the challenge in the world the programme seeks to address
  • Goals: description of the impact and outcomes of the programme; we’re trying to split these into external outcomes (that advance our mission) and internal outcomes (that advance our sustainability)
  • Ecosystem: description of the other organisations in this space, and the stakeholders for this programme, including ODI’s USP relative to other organisations
  • Activities: description of the (long running) workstreams within the programme; it’s proving useful to include a standard “running the programme” workstream here which can cover activities like programme boards and upskilling the team
  • Structure: description of who does what within the team and programme board
  • 2021 Plan: description of the programme priorities, KPIs, milestones, timeline and budget for 2021; for example if a programme has a research workstream this is where we describe what we’ll be researching this year and when

We’re also putting together questions-options-and-recommendations papers for the Board, so that when we discuss the programmes with them in March we have some thought through, meaty and meaningful discussion topics rather than just presenting the plans. These are focusing on questions of scope, focus, scale, and ambition, which I think are the right kind of questions to be taking to the Board.

The piece that I’m most worried about is KPIs. It’s so easy to come up with KPIs that are easy to measure but meaningless, or vice versa, or that push you in the wrong direction (eg sacrificing quality and impact to meet an unrealistic quantity target). I’d really like someone external to review, challenge and shape the KPIs that we’re putting together, so if you or someone you know would be up for that (can be funded, but is under time pressure), please let me know.

Talking about our commercial work

A second strategic area that I’ve been pushing at ODI is about why we do commercial work (that is, transactional work that generates margin for us, mostly for private and public sector clients) and how we talk about it.

From what I have seen, non-profits fall into three camps:

  1. Those that don’t do commercial work at all. These organisations rely on grants from philanthropic investors, and sometimes government. If there is transactional project work it tends to be limited to work for NGOs, charities, and other “good guys”. They tend to be (and have space to be) “outsider” organisations that hold corporates and governments to account.

  2. Those that do commercial work to generate profit to support their mission work. These organisations typically have a subsidiary that’s able to operate semi-independently and (if successful!) creates a sustainable revenue stream to support work in the main non-profit/charity that looks more like #1 above. Having an independent subsidiary provides some level of reputational protection when the commercial arm does work that the non-profit wouldn’t view as contributing to the mission.

  3. Those that advance their mission through commercial work. These are “insider” organisations who view the commercial work they do as advancing their mission, because their mission includes working with and changing (even a little bit) the behaviour of private and public sector organisations. Being paid helps them be taken seriously, avoids subsidising resource-rich organisations, and increases the diversity of their revenue. But it also creates questions about whether they’re taking on a piece of work because it advances their mission, or just because they need the money.

This third option is the one we’ve generally pursued at ODI, but we also sometimes talk about our commercial work as if we’re doing #2: subsidising (separate) mission work. Both models are absolutely fine, ethical, models that enable organisation to satisfy their mission, but oscillating between the two explanations can be confusing for the people who fund us, those we work with, and the team. So over the next few months we’re going to try to have this conversation explicitly and review our content and reporting so that the implicit messages we send about what’s important to us reflects our explicit position.

This is a difficult conversation to have because it gets muddled up with the ethics of working for or accepting money from particular organisations or types of organisation; with the need to sustain the organisation and the responsibility to our team; with concerns about funder influence on organisational shape and strategy; and even personal impact on people who feel the work they do is under-appreciated or even disapproved of by others in the organisation. So I think talking about it is likely to surface other tensions, but is really necessary to give clarity and consistency.

Other internal work

  • We selected a great new Head of Consultancy who will start in May. Yay!

  • We’ve started identifying topics and keynotes for this year’s ODI Summit. Let me know if you have anyone or anything on your wishlist.

  • Our 2020 Annual Report is out!

I wanted to share something else here. Normally, we have whole-team 15 minute standups every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Mondays we share our main goal for the week; on Wednesdays, give a shout out to people in the team; and on Fridays share a success or surprise from the week. This last week we mixed it up a bit and had an LGBTQ+ shout-out stand-up on Wednesday (we had a one for Black people we admire in November last year; unfortunately I missed it). It was really lovely hearing so much admiration and appreciation from the team for LGBTQ+ people in their personal lives or in the public eye. I was left with a real sense of warmth of common humanity. Highly recommended as an exercise if you want to try it in your team.

Project work

This month I have contributed to:

  • Our public policy work – which I’ve been helping Milly scope and shape – is ramping up now. There are lots of opportunities for the UK to be internationally influential this year, with the G7, D10 and COP26, so we’re working out how to make the most of them.
  • I helped us find a good partner to work with to help us build a register of data institutions, using Wikipedia as an initial source of data.
  • Reviewing work by the team, including:
    • our response to the Ofcom consultation, in particular advocating reviewing the cost and governance of the Postcode Address File, as advocated for by Anna at the Centre for Public Data
    • our response to the UK government’s public procurement consultation, where we’re emphasising how requirements to open and share data needs to be embedded into ITTs and contracts, as well as the stuff you’d expect about the need for transparency around procurement
    • chapters towards a report we’re doing for the World Bank on data institutions in low and middle income countries
    • a paper we’d advised on around developing a city-level data ecosystem
    • a blog on how we think about and go about creating data strategies
    • a guidebook we’re creating on assessing, building and demonstrating trust and trustworthiness
    • a playbook we’re creating on designing initiatives to improve data infrastructure and data access
    • a workbook we’re creating on developing business models in data institutions
    • thinking around how OpenActive might develop into a data institution

Interesting conversations

This month I’ve chatted with:

  • a guy from Sweden about how to increase their publication and use of open data
  • people in GDS about government’s (open) data plans
  • people in BEIS about evidence around the value of data
  • Lloyd’s Register Foundation about role of data in supporting evidence-based decision making
  • various people about the future of CDEI (I was really surprised to see the advert for a new Executive Director given that this still seems to be under review)
  • NHS England/Improvement about publishing open data about vaccinations
  • Microsoft about how business feels about the EU Data Governance Act proposals
  • the McGovern Foundation about our continuing work around data institutions
  • Rudi Borrmann at OGP, about their work on OGP Local and links with our own work around open cities
  • Consumers International, in particular exploring how consumer advocacy organisations might take on more of a role of data institutions, for example by stewarding data about consumer experience with products
  • Christina Colclough about labour unions as data institutions
  • Simon Manby and Lisa Moretti who are working with the Office of the Public Guardian to modernise lasting powers of attorney – this was a fascinating conversation, bringing into sharp focus difficult questions about digital identity and the role of public bodies as data institutions – do take a look at Simon and Lisa’s work here, it’s excellent

I was interviewed four times, by researchers looking at:

  • open analytics and data for research in the health sector
  • health data sharing arrangements
  • ethical and equity issues around the Ofqual qualifications algorithm, in particular exploring how it affected students outside the UK and what the future might hold for the use of data to inform grades (I really enjoyed and learned a lot during this one!)
  • the UK’s AI research and innovation strategy

And I saw presentations by:

  • Roza Vasileva, who is wrapping up her PhD looking at smart cities and participation, particularly in Tanzania and Kenya (ODI has been a kind of host organisation for Roza during her PhD)
  • the University of West England, whom we commissioned to evaluate our R&D programme and had some good recommendations about how we can improve our knowledge and process management, and the evaluation of our work programmes

GPAI

There’s not much additional to report here because over the last month we’ve really just been concentrating on getting the concept notes that we’ve been working on (and I wrote about last time) into a state where they can be shared for input from the GPAI Steering Group and other organisations.

As a reminder, the topics we have been working on within the Data Governance Working Group are:

  • data justice
  • data trusts (etc)
  • balancing innovation and data protection in legal regimes
  • handling co-creation rights
  • international rules on text and data mining
  • dataset documentation and management
  • privacy enhancing technologies

If you have an interest in being connected with the people leading the shaping of our work in any of these areas, please let me know and I’ll connect you to them. We want to narrow this set down over the next month or so, and external interest and overlaps are factors in working out how to do that.

Other work

I attended a couple of oversight boards, namely:

  • OpenSafely: This was the first meeting so a lot of the time was spent going over how OpenSafely works. I did learn, though, about an elegant expectation mechanism that they’ve put into place. This enables people defining studies to specify their expectations about the distribution of values for different variables, and serves two purposes. First, it is used to generate warnings when those expectations aren’t met, which might indicate something is going wrong with the analytics code (so helps with testing and debugging). Second, it’s used to generate dummy data that can be used to test the analytics code. 

  • Data Ethics of Location Data: The first meeting of a project being run by the Geospatial Commission, with the support of Sciencewise, who have commissioned a public consultation exercise around the ethics of collecting and using location data. There are still some questions about scope (there are lots of questions to answer, and while “location data” really means all geospatial data, most people seemed most interested in talking about the collection and use of data about people’s locations), but I was really impressed with the design of the project overall and am looking forward to seeing how it unfolds over the next 8 months or so.

I don’t pay much attention to being on lists, but I was one of the DataIQ 100; it was kinda fun virtually seeing friends at the award ceremony.

I spoke at a Westminster eForum conference on geospatial data. I spoke about the unique characteristics of data, the importance of data institutions and how essential it is to ensure their business models incentivise them to steward data on behalf of wider society rather than their customers (this plainly not being the position that Ordnance Survey has been in for many years). I called OpenStreetMap the best geospatial data institution, and a great example of global Britain, because it really is, and it so frustrates me that government data policy effectively acts as if it doesn’t exist.

I also attended SocSciFooCamp for the first time. It was a bit overwhelming and intimidating, and in many ways I was glad that it was entirely virtual (even if the PST timezone meant three intense evenings). The organisers created a Discord server and there was a lot of chat both pre-event and during the event, which was nice in terms of building a sense of community. I gave a lightning talk on how we should be focusing more on helping existing institutions take on the role of being data institutions, rather than solely new data institutions (which was well received). I also ran a session looking at how experimentation with new forms of data institution might go wrong, which I wasn’t so happy with (but I know some people did enjoy). I enjoyed listening to Cory Doctorow talk about commercial compatibility (about which more below); Nancy Potok and Amy O’Hara discuss plans for the new US National Secure Data Service; and a session that talked about care and the experience of caregivers.

I also attended (but didn’t speak at) an “AI Dialogue” which focused on risk-based regulation around AI. A lot of the conversation made me wonder why / how there are specific issues about risk assessment or regulation around AI as opposed to other technologies. Is it because it’s a general purpose technology and therefore has potentially wide-ranging effects? Is it because it’s developing faster than other technologies have? Is it because the potential impact is particularly harmful? The big questions centred around how to work out which areas of AI development were the ones that were really problematic. One observation I found particularly interesting was a discussion of the US’s comfort, with (and active pursuit of) ex post regulation, ie waiting until something goes wrong then litigating the hell out of it, compared to Europe’s preference for ex ante regulation.

Thoughts I had

  • For the talk about geospatial data, I wanted to explain why restrictive licensing around onward use is so problematic. We’ve previously used the phrase “poisoning the well” or “digital cholera” for this, but I wanted to incorporate the fact that we get most value from data when it is combined with other data. So I used the analogy of a tree, with data being joined together, and the results of that combination being used with yet more data, in a branching structure like the roots of a tree, growing and combining to create a wonderful canopy. A licence that doesn’t restricts onward combination of data means you don’t get a strong root system, and the tree is stunted. A licence that virally propagates poisons the whole tree, and if you have many of them from different sources they are like poisons that interact and kill the tree.

  • Another analogy that’s been fun to explore with Jack this past month, is around the different models the ODI could use for our deeper interactions with some data institutions. We think there are advantages (for us and for them) to actually running some data institutions, but the question is how (and why). We could run a lab, like the one that created Dolly the sheep, focusing on experimenting with different data institution models but not actually trying to create anything long term viable. We could run a zoo, where we keep the data institutions long term as examples to show what’s possible. We could run a breeding programme, where the focus is on getting data institutions into a state where they can be released into the wild. Or we could run a sanctuary, where we help ailing data institutions to die gracefully and respectfully (influenced by Cassie Robinson’s work on Stewarding Loss here). Or some mix of all four. We’re talking this choice to the Board during March; I’m interested in any opinions.

  • I saw a bunch of comments on Twitter objecting to the term “unintended consequences” when it comes to the use of data and tech. The words we use matter and it’s useful to examine them. I understand the objection to “unintended consequences” when it’s used to describe consequences that arise from people, purposefully or through lack of thought, ignoring adverse consequences of tech and the people who point them out. But I do think that there are sometimes consequences to new technologies that are unpredictable, simply because we live in a hugely complex and interdependent world, where even with the best consideration, will and preventative action in the world, shit happens. Unknown unknowns. I’m going to try using “ignored consequences” and “unpredictable consequences” for these two types of outcomes in future.

  • At SocSciFooCamp, Cory Doctorow talked about a really interesting paper from EFF advocating removing legal barriers to apps scraping websites in order to eg port data to another service or provide services layered on existing ones, to drive more official mechanisms for data portability and interoperability. The paper advocates turning legal battles into technological ones and characterises (some) privacy concerns about things like these initiatives enabling fraud or revealing data about third parties as chaff thrown by big tech to maintain their monopoly strangleholds. It’s an interesting paper, with a lot I agree with and some that concerns me, namely (a) that while it may improve privacy over the long term, there could be a lot of damage along the way; (b) that technological battles just seem like a lot of wasted effort (albeit fun for hackers); and (c) that placing existing monopolies into the position of being fundamental infrastructure for other services will only embed them and their power. I do need to write this up properly.

  • I’ve been thinking a bit about what I would do in some of the roles that have been advertised recently, or are likely to be advertised shortly, including the Executive Director of CDEI, the Innovation Commissioner, and a putative Chief Data Officer within the Central Digital and Data Office. I find this “if I had that job” exercise useful because it forces a level of practicality and understanding about the enormity of the challenges, compared to just thinking about what I’d like to see someone else do in the role. This recently published introduction to levers for digital service groups has some ideas but seems premised on the notion that the early GDS approach was a success (which in many ways it was, of course, but also wasn’t in others). These are all roles that will need a combination of vision, systems thinking, and canny use of the limited set of levers that they will actually have at their disposal.

Personal

Work life

  • Email: I’m really struggling with email (as usual). I get time to triage, which is good, and I’ve introduced urgent and diary labels to help give more nuanced to that. I am able to keep on top of those that require urgent action and that require diary appointments. But things that require more thought I’m just labelling as “action” and they’re frankly neglected. I book time for actioning them but it gets overbooked or used for other things or simply isn’t long enough. Sometimes I know I avoid them because they require thought or I simply don’t have a strong idea about how to answer them. I need to be stricter about getting through them, or recognising when I’m choosing not to reply.

  • Booking time: I’ve managed to get (most of!) the ODI team to book time into my calendar when they want me to do things, in particular things like reviewing documents. It helps keep the timing of those realistic, and it ensures that my days are usually balanced between meetings and heads down time. But there’s often a few meetings that I’d really like to take earlier than my diary permits. I’m thinking about holding “last minute meeting” time in my calendar each week explicitly to enable that to happen.

Home life

I had two days off during half term, the highlight of which was watching Hamilton with my kids. I had tickets to go and see it live last year, for my birthday in May, but of course all the performances were cancelled. Perhaps I’ll appreciate the live performance all the more for watching it (on Disney+). King George’s Songs have been echoing in my head ever since; they’re such an earworm.

My eldest, who is studying Government and Politics A level, was given some extra work to do, namely a course from Hong Kong University called Europe without borders? We decided to do it together, to make it more fun, and it was! Really well put together, explaining the EU’s governance structures and evolution over time, its internal tensions and some of what the future might hold.

Video games:

  • Drake Hollow – nice exploration/base building game; a little too much combat for me
  • Slay the Spire – I’m watching my eldest play and occasionally throwing in suggestions about what would have been a good thing to do, just after she’s taken her action
  • Spiritfarer – just picked this up again; the kids were playing it but my youngest got tired of it so I’m playing in their stead
  • Sudoku – more specifically killer sudoku, where you are told the total value within groups of contiguous cells – has been an obsession for me over the past year. I was doing the two in the Guardian each day (not using annotations on the easy one to give some extra challenge). Then at Xmas my parents recommended a great killer sudoku app, with some really challenging puzzles that would take me hours to complete. That same company makes a number of other sudoku variant apps, and I’ve worked through sandwich sudoku, chess sudoku and have almost completed thermo sudoku. Earlier this month I thought I was spending too much time on it and could do something more productive with my time, but when I stopped I realised that the time I was spending doing these puzzles was not time I could spend more productively or creatively. It’s time when my brain needs a break (or a different form of stimulation).

Other games I’ve been playing:

  • Terraforming Mars – I’ve been playing the solo player variant jointly with my eldest (as opposed to competing with her). You can never be confident of winning when playing solo and if it comes together at all it’s always in the very last round.
  • Quacks of Quedlinburg – a rare competitive game for us but its gameplay is such that you feel you’re only competing with yourself and lady luck. Highly recommended.
  • Horrified – hadn’t played this for a while, but it’s a fun, fast paced, thematically coherent and challenging co-op game.

We’re still playing Masks. I’ve also been reading and fantasising about playing Good Society (especially after watching Bridgerton), as I love the idea of role playing that doesn’t centre on combat, but on character relationships and desires. If it’s something you’d also be interested in let me know and maybe we’ll be able to find enough people to play…

TV we’ve been watching:

  • Bridgerton – binged on this with my eldest; I particularly enjoyed that it didn’t stop at marriage
  • The Queen’s Gambit – so good, even if I can’t shake the feeling that Thomas Brodie-Sangster is 15 playing dress-up (he’s 30)
  • It’s a Sin – wonderful, heartbreaking
  • The Expanse – Alex! No!
  • WandaVision – a bit disappointed with the episode 7 reveal, but such a good show
  • Star Trek: Lower Decks – cartoon set in the Star Trek universe! Excellent
  • Law & Order – part way through series 3 and we’ve got one female returning character (though she’s not a lead). Every episode, DA Schiff gives a “you’ll never win this, Ben” speech and my youngest and I crack up at the predictability.

A few films, mostly with my wider family:

  • Roma – honestly people found it tedious and unpleasant so we stopped part way through
  • Set It Up – went for a romcom for Valentine’s day; it went down ok here but the wider family didn’t enjoy it
  • Plunkett and Macleane – remember really enjoying this when it came out; the modern/historical mix seemed really innovative then, but less so now. Still adore Alan Cumming and Craig Armstrong’s music though

Mental health

There’s a lot of noise at the moment about “getting back to normal” and I’ve been thinking about this in particular in relation to my youngest child, and myself. There are some people who are thrilled with the idea of a return to normal office/school life, and obviously I really get that, particularly for those with difficult home situations, those living alone, those who don’t have necessary equipment, those who aren’t able to work during lockdown, those who have had to look after small children, and those who just love being around people and learn and get energy from those interactions.

But there are also some of us for whom lockdown has not been all bad, and might even, on balance, have been better. I love being able to structure my day so I can get on with work first thing, because that’s when my energy is high. I love having proper heads down time where I can manage interruptions and distractions in ways that are just impossible in an open plan office. I love not having two hours of travel each day, pressed up against other commuters. I love not wearing shoes all day. I love that calls that span continents feel the same as calls with people just down the road, and not having weird hybrid meetings that exclude those on the computer screen. I love having my own space. I love being able to go for a long walk each day, especially now it’s sunnier. I love parallel text chats in video conferences. I love seeing my family during the day and not being away from them for days on end due to work trips. I love not flying.

That’s not to say there aren’t things I miss from the before times too. I miss hugging my friends and colleagues, probably most of all. I miss catching up with John most Friday evenings, a lot. When I’m speaking at conferences, I miss seeing people’s reactions, hearing their laughter and their applause, and I miss being grabbed for a question or chat, and bumping into friends for a gossip.

I do recognise my privilege in being able to see benefits in how I work now, and that it’s very different for people at different life and work stages. I guess I’d just like us not to fall into the easy assumption that everyone is over the moon about the idea of a “return to normal”. For some of us it’s actually a cause of anxiety.

That goes particularly for my youngest, who has found schooling from home much more suitable to their needs than the school environment. I wrote last month about their autism. They seem to learn better, been more engaged and enjoy learning more when they are able to manage their time, follow their passions, and are able to doodle and stim during lessons. Being home has given them space for that. I feel really quite sad for children like my youngest who have been shown that there is another way to learn (just as we adults have been shown there is another way to work), only to have that taken away from them again. They will be moving schools anyway after GCSEs, so we’ll be looking for sixth form colleges that can accommodate more remote learning, if such a thing exists.